Definition

Plaque is a sticky, white film of bacteria that constantly forms on our teeth and along the gum line. Plaque contains bacteria that can cause cavities and gum disease. If plaque forms and is not removed by proper brushing and flossing, it can harden into tartar — sometimes called calculus — which is calcified (or hardened) plaque that attaches to the enamel on your teeth, as well as along and below the gum line.

Signs & Symptoms

Everyone develops plaque because bacteria are constantly growing in our mouths, which is not necessarily easy to see. Plaque that is not removed from around the gum line can cause inflammation and irritation to the gums around your teeth, leading to gingivitis (red, swollen, bleeding gums). If gingivitis is not treated, it can progress to periodontal disease and, possibly, tooth loss.

Unlike plaque, tartar is a mineral buildup that is fairly easy to see, if above the gum line. The most common sign of tartar buildup is a yellow or brown deposit often around the lower front teeth. The only way to remove tartar completely is to see your dental practitioner for a professional cleaning.

Cause

Bacteria in our mouths attach to the surfaces of our teeth and grow into colonies. If proper flossing and tooth brushing are not conducted efficiently each day, plaque builds up and tartar develop. Tartar gives plaque more surface area on which to grow and a much stickier surface to adhere to.

  • Plaque bacteria irritate the gums and cause them to become inflamed, possibly leading to gum disease which can affect the tissue and bone that support the teeth.

Prevention

It is easy to prevent plaque buildup with proper care. Make sure to:

  • Brush thoroughly at least twice a day for 2 minutes to thoroughly remove plaque from all surfaces of your teeth.
  • Floss daily to remove plaque from between your teeth and under your gum line, where your toothbrush may not reach.
  • Limit sugary or starchy foods, especially sticky snacks.
  • Schedule at least two regular dental visits for professional cleanings and dental examinations each year.
  • Proper brushing, especially with a tartar control toothpaste, and flossing are necessary to reduce plaque and tartar buildup. Once tartar has formed, only your dental practitioner can remove it professionally.

Treatment

The process for removing tartar is called scaling. During a scaling, the dental practitioner uses special instruments (ultrasonic and hand scalers, and curettes) to remove tartar and plaque from your teeth, above and below the gum line.

Related Conditions

Without proper treatment, tartar and plaque can lead to a variety of issues like gum disease and tooth loss. It is important to brush twice a day and floss once a day, and schedule regular checkups and professional cleanings with your dental practitioner.

Stop plaque in its tracks

Plaque is a sticky bacterial film that sticks to your teeth. When plaque is not removed through brushing and flossing, it turns into tartar. Try one of our toothpastes which reduces plaque and tartar build up.