What is dental plaque and tartar build-up?

Last Updated May 2023

The outer layer of enamel on our teeth acts as a shield, protecting the insides of them. But this enamel can be damaged by the build-up of plaque and tartar. Plaque is a sticky substance that can develop when food debris stays on your teeth and isn’t cleaned away. Tartar is basically plaque that has been left untreated and worsened into a harder surface on the teeth that only dentists can remove. If left untreated, plaque and tartar can lead to dental problems, including tooth decay and gum disease.

In this article, we’ll explain the differences between plaque and tartar, what causes them, and how they can be treated.

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Plaque vs tartar

What is plaque?

Plaque is a thick film on your teeth composed of saliva and trapped food particles. It builds up on the tooth surface above and below the gum line. Anybody can develop plaque on their teeth. People often describe it as feeling fuzzy and it’s most noticeable when teeth haven’t been brushed.

What is tartar?

Tartar is essentially hardened plaque that has been allowed to build up. When this happens, you need to visit a dentist to get it removed. Tartar is usually yellow in colour and appears on the gum line, and it can continue to grow and calcify. It can feel rough and porous and, if it’s not treated, can lead to more serious dental issues like receding gums and gum disease.

What causes plaque on teeth?

Plaque develops when food debris is left on your teeth. Even if you practice good oral hygiene and clean your teeth regularly, you’ll still have bacteria in your mouth. This bacteria feed on food debris and release acids that can destroy your tooth enamel, leading to tooth decay.

When bacteria mix with the remnants of food and drink in your mouth, they create a sticky or gunky film that sticks to your teeth – that substance is plaque. If plaque develops along the tooth roots or under the gum, this can eventually lead to the destruction of the bone supporting your teeth.

What causes tartar on teeth?

If plaque isn’t dealt with, it can harden and become tartar – sometimes called calculus. Because tartar is harder than plaque, it is more difficult to remove and will require special tools in the dentist’s office.

Tartar can also sometimes make it harder to brush or floss where you need to, which can lead to further dental problems, such as cavities and tooth decay. If it forms along the gum line, tartar can irritate your gums and cause tissue damage, which may lead to more severe types of gum disease, like periodontitis.

How to remove plaque from teeth

Everyone has plaque. It forms naturally when the bacteria in our mouths mix with food debris, so it’s impossible to prevent it from forming completely. What you can do, however, is take certain steps to remove it from your teeth before it causes any damage or develops into tartar.

Brush your teeth at least twice daily

Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste to help keep plaque at bay. Make sure you pay particular attention to the bottom of your teeth, where the surface meets the gumline, as this is where plaque often develops.

If you have children, make sure you start brushing their teeth as soon as they get their first baby tooth. You’ll need to supervise their brushing until they reach around six years old and can start to do things for themselves. Try to encourage a methodical method of brushing, starting at one side and moving around to the other, top and bottom. This will help ensure they don’t miss or forget any areas.

Regularly floss

Flossing or using interdental brushes to clean between your teeth can help remove food particles and bacteria from hard-to-reach places that could be missed by brushing alone. You should aim to clean between your teeth at least once a day.

Use a mouthwash to reduce bacteria

Antibacterial mouthwashes – like LISTERINE® Total Care 10 in 1 – are a great way to rinse bacteria and food particles from your mouth, preventing them from mixing and forming plaque on your teeth.

Have regular dental check-ups

Regular visits to your dentist and hygienist are a great way to get tips on how to improve your oral hygiene, have your teeth professionally cleaned, and spot any early signs of damage. Visiting the dentist regularly is especially helpful if you have children, as they can show little ones how to better care for their teeth. Ideally, you should visit our dentist once every six months.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet.

Try to maintain a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and limit snacking. If you do snack, try to stick to ones that are nutritious and won’t leave lots of sugars in your mouth – for example, plain yoghurt, raw vegetables, cheese, and fruit. Chewing on hard, raw vegetables can also help stimulate saliva production, which can wash away food particles and neutralise the acids that could lead to plaque.

Maintaining a good oral hygiene routine is one of the best ways to remove plaque from your teeth and limit your risk of dental health issues in the future.

Remember, plaque is usually invisible to the naked eye so, even though you can’t see it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. You can also check for plaque using disclosing tablets. These are tablets that contain a coloured dye that sticks to the plaque on your teeth. After brushing, chew on a tablet and then rinse your mouth with water. The darker the colour left on your teeth, the more plaque you have. You can then brush again to remove any plaque and learn where you need to brush better in future.

How to remove tartar from teeth

By preventing plaque from building up on your teeth, you’ll lower the chances of tartar developing. Here are some additional tips you can try if you’re concerned about tartar build up:

  • Choosing a tartar-control toothpaste with fluoride can help repair enamel damage. Products containing triclosan can also help to fight bacteria.
  • Using a specially formulated mouthwash to help in killing plaque-causing bacteria.
  • Quit smoking. Some studies show that tartar is more common in people who smoke cigarettes or use tobacco products.

Tartar is incredibly tough so, once it’s formed, it can only be removed by a dental professional. They’ll use special tools to scale and polish your teeth, removing the tartar. You should arrange to see your dentist every six months to keep on top of plaque and tartar build up.

Tartar vs plaque FAQs

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