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Plaque and tartar on teeth: causes, types, and removal

08 September · 5 minutes

Just as many people ask “what is plaque on teeth?” as “what is tartar on teeth?” So we’re going to take a look at both. While you’ve probably heard that each of these is bad, you might not have learned exactly what they are. In this article, we’ll answer all your questions, from “what does plaque vs tartar on teeth look like?” to “what causes plaque and tartar and how do they build up?” Most importantly, we’ll address how to prevent plaque and tartar buildup on teeth and how to remove them once and for all. Let’s take a look at all you need to know about dental plaque and tartar.

What is plaque? And what is tartar?

Let’s begin with the basics. What is plaque? And what is tartar? Well, they’re actually two different things, let's start by taking a look at plaque: what is it and what is it made of? The dental plaque that you can find on teeth is a sticky and colorless layer that builds up on the tooth surface due to the accumulation of bacteria and food debris. Among other oral diseases, the accumulation of bacterial plaque is the main cause of cavities and gingivitis, hence its need for removal.

Next, what is tartar and what does it look like on teeth? The tartar on teeth is simply the calcification of dental plaque, which is why it's also referred to as dental calculus. While bacterial plaque is colorless, tartar is usually yellowish or brown. When we don't brush our teeth properly, the accumulation of plaque can solidify, giving rise to tartar. Tartar or dental calculus can build up on or between the teeth and in the gums, where it is more difficult to remove.

Close up of a dentist breaking tartar off teeth

What is the difference between plaque and tartar on teeth?

Essentially, tartar is the next level of plaque. Unlike plaque, which is sticky, tartar is hard.

Their consistencies go hand in hand with another main difference between plaque and tartar: plaque removal from teeth is simple vs tartar removal, which is a bit more complicated. If you have tartar buildup on or between your teeth, you’ll need to go to the dentist immediately in order to remove it and prevent possible dental diseases.

So overall, when discussing plaque vs tartar on teeth, tartar is the progressed and more dangerous plaque.

How does plaque or tartar buildup form and what is it made of?

Bacterial plaque is formed by the accumulation of food debris on the tooth surface, which is colonized by various bacteria found in the oral cavity that feed on these debris. So, what exactly is the plaque on teeth made of? Just that; the combination of food remains, along with bacteria and other elements. They build up on the teeth and create the sticky substance known as dental plaque.

Your next question might be, so how does tartar form and build up? Tartar or dental calculus buildup forms when dental plaque is not cleaned. When the bacterial plaque comes into contact with saliva, there is a reaction that calcifies the plaque, turning it into tartar. Tartar buildup on or between the teeth should be avoided at all costs, as we mentioned earlier, because it’s more difficult to remove and more dangerous to your oral health.

What causes dental plaque and tartar buildup on teeth?

Now that we understand what they are, we need to look at what causes dental plaque and tartar buildup on teeth. The main cause of dental plaque is usually not maintaining good oral hygiene. If plaque is not properly removed by brushing and using floss, it will accumulate and calcify, forming tartar or calculus teeth. Since both are interrelated, it could be said that poor oral hygiene is also the main cause of tartar on teeth.

That being said, when talking about what causes plaque and tartar on teeth, we should also consider that sometimes oral hygiene can be difficult to maintain, like with braces. Plaque caused by braces is relatively frequent, since these devices make it difficult to thoroughly brush the teeth and gums, and may facilitate the buildup of plaque and tartar on the teeth around the device.

Although poor oral hygiene is the main cause of both, it is also true that plaque and tartar on the teeth don’t come from bad brushing exclusively. There are other factors that can influence their development, for example, if we eat a lot of sugar, the pH of our saliva will be altered and we're more likely to create and accumulate dental plaque and tartar buildup. On the other hand, there are people who naturally have a more acidic pH, which creates the ideal climate for plaque and other oral diseases such as cavities.

Close up of patient’s mouth during tartar removal

Types of bacterial plaque and dental calculus on teeth

Depending on where the problem is located on the teeth, there are different types of dental plaque and calculus. Let’s take a look at the types below.

Types of plaque on teeth

Dental plaque can be located in various places in the mouth, and depending on where it accumulates, determines the type. Let’s take a look at the types of bacterial plaque on teeth:

  • Marginal plaque is on top of the tooth's surface
  • Coronal plaque is located plaque on the border of the teeth and gums
  • Subgingival plaque accumulates in the pits of the gingival sulcus and within the periodontal pockets, causing tartar pockets in the gums.

Types of tartar or dental calculus

Like plaque, tartar or dental calculus can also appear in various places around the mouth, but unlike plaque, there are only two types of dental calculus:

  • Supragingival tartar is found on the border of the gums and teeth
  • Subgingival tartar accumulates under the gums, and can form in the periodontal pockets.

How to remove plaque and tartar from teeth

How to remove plaque buildup from teeth

Want to know how to get rid of plaque buildup? When it comes to the removal of plaque on teeth, we need to maintain proper dental hygiene, brushing and flossing after every meal. In addition, we can complement this with clinic visits for professional dental cleaning from time to time. We can count on these to achieve a deeper cleaning of the oral cavity. So luckily, knowing how to get rid of plaque buildup doesn’t require much.

Patient getting teeth cleaned to avoid plaque buildup

How to remove tartar from teeth

Wondering how to get tartar off teeth? Unfortunately, calculus teeth or tartar removal is not as simple as cleaning dental plaque. To remove hard tartar from the teeth you will have to go to your dentist. During the consultation, the hygienist or dentist will perform a dental cleaning in the event that calculus is found on the dental surface, breaking the tartar off the teeth. But if you want to know how to remove tartar from teeth when it's found under the gums, a tartarectomy or dental curettage will be necessary for tartar removal. With the help of a curette or an ultrasonic cleaner, the professional will help you remove the tartar by breaking it off your teeth and gums.

How to avoid and prevent plaque and tartar buildup

Now, the most important part, how to avoid plaque buildup and how to prevent it from turning into tartar. For starters, good hygiene is vitally important. It's as simple as using the toothbrush with toothpaste and dental floss after meals. This way we can avoid the accumulation of plaque, the formation of tartar and the diseases that may arise. Also, remember that professional dental cleanings are a great resource in avoiding and preventing plaque and tartar buildup.

Young woman using dental floss

Impress invisible orthodontics: experts in oral health

Do you want to start an orthodontic treatment but you’re nervous that it may negatively affect your oral hygiene, leading to excess plaque and tartar? With Impress clear orthodontics, you won’t have to worry.

At Impress we are specialists in oral health and invisible orthodontics. We work primarily with invisible aligners which can be removed for eating and cleaning, which means our patients can maintain excellent oral hygiene and avoid the accumulation of plaque and tartar. In addition to being removable, Impress aligners are transparent, so you can complete your treatment without anyone even noticing.

Come on in and get to know us! Schedule a free consultation where we’ll perform an exhaustive study of your oral health and determine which type of treatment you’ll need to get the smile of your dreams.

You can get in touch with us by calling (888) 490 1421 via phone or on WhatsApp, emailing support.us@smile2impress.com or by booking your initial consultation online. Discover what Impress can do for your smile at your nearest clinic!

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Frequently asked questions about plaque and tartar

Does tartar removal hurt?

Professional dental cleanings to get rid of plaque don't usually hurt. However, tartar removal can sometimes hurt if you experience dental sensitivity. In addition, if there are periodontal pockets, meaning curettage is required and the deep area of the gums needs to be treated, the dentist may apply a little anesthesia so that the tartar removal process doesn’t hurt.

Is tartar contagious?

Tartar is not contagious. However, the bacteria that cause dental plaque, which later turns into tartar, are.

Does plaque or tartar cause bad breath?

Yes, both dental plaque and tartar cause bad breath. The food remains in dental plaque are broken down by bacteria in the oral cavity, causing halitosis, also called bad breath.

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