You may hear the terms plaque and tartar on toothpaste commercials or read them on your bottle of mouthwash, even hear about it at the dentist! But what exactly are plaque and tartar? More importantly, why are we always trying to fight it?

What is plaque?

A soft, sticky film that builds up on your teeth. When saliva, food, and fluids combine they produce bacteria deposits which build up over time. If bacteria deposits from the plaque aren’t removed by regular brushing and flossing, they can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and tartar buildup.

What is tartar?

When plaque stays on your teeth and hardens it becomes tartar. Tartar is a hard, crusty bacterial deposit. It can trap stains and leads to tooth discoloration; usually yellow or brown.  Tartar can also form at and underneath the gumline irritating the gum tissue. Tartar gives plaque more surface area on which to grow and a more adhesive surface to multiply.

Plaque and Tartar’s Relationship

A lot of what we eat and drink remains in our mouths long after we’ve finished. Bacteria in our mouths thrive on many of these foods — namely sugars and carbohydrates — and produce acids that can attack the tooth surface. Additionally, if proper flossing and tooth brushing are not conducted efficiently each day this leads to more plaque and tartar development.

Everyone develops plaque because of the bacteria constantly growing in our mouths. It’s typical and can easily go unnoticed. However, plaque that is not removed from around the gum line can cause inflammation and irritation of the gums surrounding the teeth. The bacteria can infect not only your gums and teeth but also the gum tissue and bone that support the teeth. This could lead to gum disease, like gingivitis. If gingivitis goes untreated, it can progress to periodontal disease possibly resulting in tooth loss.

Unlike plaque, tartar is a mineral buildup that’s fairly easy to see. That is if it occurs above the gum line. The most common sign of tartar is a yellow or brown deposit between the lower front teeth or at the gum line. Susceptibility to tartar buildup varies greatly depending on the individual person. As you get older, you become more prone to having tartar form on your teeth. The only way to remove tartar completely is to see your dentist or dental hygienist for a professional cleaning.

The Solution

When plaque isn’t removed from your daily oral hygiene routine, it will harden to become tartar. The hard deposits that make up tartar can only be removed professionally by a dental hygienist or dentist. That is why teeth cleaning is a key component of your 6-month dental visit. When patients come in for a semiannual dental appointment, a thorough cleaning is performed to rid the mouth of plaque and tartar buildup.

An ultrasonic instrument which uses tickling vibrations to knock larger pieces of tartar lose. Once the larger pieces of tartar are gone, the dentist uses a scaler to remove smaller deposits until clear and smooth. Finally, the dentist will polish the tooth, possibly with fluoride.