Both plaque and tartar increase the risk of cavities, gingivitis, and other dental conditions. Knowing how to distinguish between plaque and tartar can help identify the warning signs of dental health issues.
Plaque is a soft, clear or yellow film of bacteria that a person can remove by brushing their teeth. If plaque sits on the teeth too long, it hardens to create tartar. Tartar usually has a darker color, and only a dental professional can remove it.
Keep reading to learn more about how plaque and tartar form, as well as how to remove them.
Plaque is a collection of bacteria that stick together. They can live on the teeth, gums, tongue, and throughout the mouth.
Approximately 700 species of tiny organisms, including bacteria, live on and around the teeth. Many of these bacteria can join together to form a biofilm.
Biofilms are thick, sticky substances that protect bacteria, making them stronger and harder to remove. The slimy, sticky white or yellow film that a person sees on their teeth or between their gums is plaque.
If a person does not remove plaque, it calcifies by trapping calcium or other minerals from the saliva, causing it to harden. Dentists call hardened plaque tartar or calculus. Tartar can stain the teeth and make them look discolored. It can also trap plaque, increasing the risk of developing more tartar.
Plaque and tartar increase the risk of gingivitis and periodontitis, both of which are forms of gum disease.
Chronic exposure to the bacteria in plaque causes inflammation in the gum tissue. This can trigger bleeding, pain, redness, and in some cases, infections. The chronic inflammation of periodontitis is also a risk factor for other illnesses, including cardiovascular disease.
Removing plaque and tartar may help treat gum disease and prevent it from getting worse. Managing gum disease can also improve dental health and may lower a person’s risk of chronic diseases.
Regular brushing and flossing can remove plaque. To eliminate all plaque, a person must be thorough, as it tends to accumulate between the teeth and sometimes on the gums. If a person already has gum disease, gum swelling can create pockets where more plaque can hide.
Regular dental appointments can help with plaque removal, as dental cleaning may find plaque a person misses. Dental scaling removes plaque beneath the gums, where it may cause inflammation and harden into tartar.
Some signs of plaque on the teeth include:
- chronic bad breath, since the bacteria that form plaque may smell
- teeth that feel fuzzy or slimy
- white or yellow goo on dental floss
- bleeding or painful gums
A toothpaste with fluoride can reduce dental harm from bacteria and plaque. Eating less sugar may also help, as the bacteria that forms plaque feeds on sugar. People with significant plaque or a history of tooth decay may choose a fluoride treatment at the dentist.
A person’s risk of developing plaque and gum disease is higher due to the following factors:
- not brushing or flossing teeth regularly
- having genetic risk factors for tooth decay
- having certain lifestyle risk factors, such as eating a high-sugar diet or having very high stress
- not seeking regular dental care, since a dentist can remove plaque a person cannot reach
- wearing oral appliances, such as braces or retainers, that make it more difficult to clean the teeth thoroughly
A person cannot remove tartar, or calculus, on their own at home. Tartar is hard, and trying to scratch or pull it off can damage the teeth.
Dentists can remove tartar with professional cleaning. Sometimes, they will recommend scaling and root planing. This procedure will help remove plaque and tartar under the gums to prevent additional buildup.
If a person notices calculus, it is important to continue brushing and flossing regularly. Tartar can make it more difficult to remove plaque, so focus on flossing daily and brushing the gumline. A dentist may also recommend specific toothpaste formulas.
A person may have tartar if they notice:
- discolored spots on their teeth, especially near the gums or in between teeth
- hard, rough patches on their teeth
- swollen, painful, or bloody gums
A person’s risk of developing tartar is higher with the following factors:
- not seeking regular oral care from a dentist
- not brushing or flossing their teeth regularly
- crooked teeth that make it difficult to clean between them
Removing tartar and plaque can reduce the risk of severe dental and other health issues.
Regular brushing can reduce the amount of plaque a person has. However, to remove tartar, a person must go to the dentist.
People who suspect they may have gum disease should seek prompt dental care, whether they believe they have plaque, tartar, or both.