Conditions,  Health,  Q&A

Plaque vs. Tartar: What’s The Difference?

This article is a part of our Q&A series in which we give detailed answers to our readers' questions. Have a question? Don't hesitate and send it to us to get a detailed answer!

Dental hygiene is at the forefront of personal care, yet there’s often confusion surrounding certain terms and concepts. Two such commonly misconstrued terms are plaque and tartar. While they are interrelated, they represent different stages in the process of tooth decay and require distinct care and treatment. This article aims to shed light on these two terms by providing an in-depth examination of what they are and how they form.

What Is Plaque?

Plaque is a soft, sticky, colorless film of bacteria that constantly forms on our teeth and gums. It’s a complex microbial community with various bacteria embedded in a matrix of proteins and sugars. The bacteria feed on food particles and sugar left in the mouth after eating, leading to the creation of acids.

Plaque Composition and Characteristics

  • Bacterial Content: Over 600 different species of bacteria may reside in plaque, contributing to its complexity.
  • Texture and Appearance: Soft, sticky, and often invisible unless allowed to build up significantly.
  • Effect on Teeth and Gums: If not removed through proper cleaning, plaque can lead to tooth decay and gum disease, as the acids produced demineralize the tooth enamel and irritate the gums.

Plaque Prevention and Treatment

  • Regular Brushing and Flossing: Using fluoride toothpaste and dental floss helps remove plaque daily.
  • Professional Dental Cleanings: Regular check-ups with dental hygienists can ensure that hard-to-reach areas are cleaned effectively.

Formation of Plaque

The formation of plaque is a complex and continuous process.
Here is a comprehensive look:

  • Initial Attachment: Bacteria in the mouth adhere to the tooth’s surface, forming a biofilm
  • Acid Production: As the bacteria feed on sugars and food residues, they produce acids
  • Demineralization: These acids can erode the tooth’s enamel, leading to cavities if left untreated
  • Plaque Maturation: Over time, the composition of the plaque changes, with more harmful bacteria developing if proper dental hygiene is not maintained

What Causes Dental Plaque

Plaque forms as a result of various factors:

  • Bacteria in the Mouth: The human mouth naturally hosts a variety of bacteria that can combine with proteins and food particles to form plaque.
  • Dietary Habits: Consuming foods and drinks high in sugars and carbohydrates provides more fuel for bacteria to produce acids, contributing to plaque formation.
  • Inadequate Oral Hygiene: Failing to brush and floss properly can leave food particles and bacteria in the mouth, accelerating plaque formation.

Plaque Removal

Plaque removal is essential to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. The process can be done both at home and through professional care.
At-Home Care

  • Brushing: Brushing teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste helps remove plaque from the tooth surfaces.
  • Flossing: Dental floss reaches between teeth where a toothbrush might miss, helping to remove plaque in those areas.
  • Mouthwash: Antiseptic mouthwash can help in reducing plaque-causing bacteria.
  • Dietary Habits: Minimizing sugary and starchy foods can reduce plaque build-up.

Professional Care

  • Regular Dental Check-Ups: Dental professionals can clean areas that are difficult to reach at home, providing a thorough plaque removal.

What Is Tartar?

Tartar, also known as dental calculus, is a hardened form of plaque. It is a mineralized deposit that forms when the plaque on the teeth combines with saliva and minerals.

Tartar Composition and Characteristics

  • Bacterial Content: Similar to plaque but in a mineralized state.
  • Texture and Appearance: Hard and crusty, often yellow or brown in color. It is typically visible and cannot be removed by regular brushing or flossing.
  • Effect on Teeth and Gums: Tartar provides a rough surface that promotes further plaque accumulation, leading to more serious dental issues such as cavities and gum disease.

Tartar Prevention and Treatment

  • Regular Professional Dental Cleanings: Dentists or dental hygienists can remove tartar through a process called scaling.
  • Avoiding Smoking and Certain Foods: Reducing the intake of sugary foods and tobacco can decrease the likelihood of tartar formation.

Formation of Tartar

Tartar formation follows the accumulation of plaque and includes the following stages:

  • Plaque Build-Up: If plaque is not removed, it continues to build up and mix with minerals in the saliva.
  • Mineralization: Calcium and phosphate bind to the plaque, turning it into a hard and crusty deposit.
  • Hardening: Over time, this deposit hardens into tartar, adhering strongly to the teeth and becoming more difficult to remove.
  • Potential Complications: If untreated, tartar can lead to further dental problems, including cavities, gum disease, and tooth loss.

What Causes Dental Tartar

Tartar is formed from plaque through a sequence of events:

  • Prolonged Plaque Accumulation: If plaque is not removed effectively, it continues to build up on the teeth.
  • Mineralization: Over time, minerals from saliva, such as calcium and phosphate, combine with plaque, causing it to harden.
  • Attachment to Teeth: Tartar adheres firmly to the teeth and may even extend below the gum line, making it challenging to remove.

Tartar Removal

Tartar removal is more challenging and typically requires professional intervention.
Professional Care

  • Scaling: Dental professionals use specialized tools in a process called scaling to scrape tartar from the teeth.
  • Root Planing: This procedure may be necessary to smooth the root surfaces, discouraging further tartar formation.
  • Laser Treatment: In some cases, lasers might be used to remove tartar.

Differences between Plaque and Tartar

Understanding the differences between plaque and tartar is fundamental for proper dental care.
Here are the main contrasts:

  Plaque Tartar
Nature and Composition Soft, sticky, and colorless film of bacteria and sugars Hardened, mineralized form of plaque
Appearance Often invisible without staining Visible, yellow or brown in color
Removal Can be removed with regular at-home care like brushing and flossing Requires professional dental intervention for removal
Formation Process Forms quickly and continuously on teeth surfaces Develops over time from unremoved plaque and combines with minerals
Effect on Dental Health Can lead to tooth decay and gum disease if not removed Promotes further plaque accumulation, complicating dental issues

How Do You Prevent Plaque & Tartar Buildup?

Preventing plaque and tartar buildup requires a combination of at-home care and professional dental intervention.

At-Home Care

  • Regular Brushing: Brushing with fluoride toothpaste twice a day helps remove food particles and bacteria.
  • Daily Flossing: Flossing at least once a day helps clean the spaces between teeth where plaque can accumulate.
  • Use of Mouthwash: An antimicrobial mouthwash can aid in reducing plaque-causing bacteria.
  • Healthy Diet: Limiting sugary and starchy foods, and drinking plenty of water can minimize the potential for plaque formation.

Professional Care

  • Regular Dental Check-Ups: Having dental check-ups and cleanings at least twice a year ensures thorough cleaning and early detection of any plaque or tartar buildup.
  • Dental Sealants: Some individuals may benefit from dental sealants, which can provide a barrier to protect teeth from plaque.

Lifestyle Choices

  • Avoid Smoking: Tobacco use can promote tartar formation, so avoiding or quitting smoking can contribute to prevention.
  • Use Dental Tools Designed for Home Use: Utilizing tartar-control toothpaste or electric toothbrushes can enhance at-home cleaning efforts.

What is Worse: Tartar or Plaque?

While both plaque and tartar pose risks to dental health, tartar is generally considered worse. Plaque is a soft, sticky film that can be removed with regular oral hygiene practices at home. If left untreated, it may lead to tooth decay or gum disease. Tartar, on the other hand, is hardened plaque that adheres firmly to the teeth. It provides a rough surface that promotes further plaque accumulation and can lead to more severe dental issues such as cavities, gum disease, and tooth loss. Tartar cannot be removed by regular brushing or flossing and requires professional intervention.

Is it Advisable to Scrape off the Tartar from the Teeth?

It is not advisable to scrape off tartar from teeth at home. Attempting to remove tartar without proper tools and techniques can cause damage to the teeth and gums. It may lead to scratching the enamel, infection, or other dental issues. Professional dental care, such as scaling, is the safe and effective way to remove tartar.

How Long Does it Take for Plaque to Turn into Tartar?

Plaque can begin to harden into tartar within 24 to 72 hours if not properly removed. The mineralization process continues over time, and in about 10 to 14 days, it can fully harden into tartar. This underscores the importance of daily dental hygiene to prevent this transformation.

How Do You Scrape Plaque off Your Teeth?

Scraping plaque off your teeth should be done with care, using proper tools and techniques:

  • Brushing: Using a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste, brush your teeth at a 45-degree angle to the gums.
  • Flossing: Dental floss can help remove plaque between teeth where a toothbrush might not reach.
  • Dental Tools for Home Use: Specialized dental tools designed for home use may be employed, but caution should be exercised to avoid damaging the teeth or gums.

How Long Should You Brush Your Teeth to Avoid Plaque Buildup?

Brushing your teeth for at least two minutes, twice a day, is generally recommended to effectively remove plaque and avoid its buildup. Spending a few seconds on each tooth and using proper techniques is essential for thorough cleaning.

How Does the Dentist Remove Hardened Tartar?

Dentists remove hardened tartar through a professional cleaning process called scaling:

  • Hand Scaling: Dental professionals use specialized instruments called scalers to scrape tartar from the teeth carefully.
  • Ultrasonic Scaling: Some dentists use ultrasonic instruments that use vibration to break up tartar, followed by a water spray to wash it away.
  • Polishing: After scaling, the teeth may be polished to smooth out any rough surfaces.

Bottom Line

Dental plaque and tartar formation are interconnected processes influenced by bacteria in the mouth, dietary habits, and oral hygiene practices. Plaque and tartar are closely related but represent different stages in dental health. While plaque is a soft and sticky film, tartar is its hardened counterpart, and while plaque can generally be managed through diligent at-home care, tartar often requires professional removal. Prevention is essential, as plaque can quickly transform into tartar if left untreated. A consistent oral care routine, mindful dietary choices, and regular professional dental care form the cornerstone of effective prevention.

This Q&A series article is complete and was published on August 16, 2023, and last updated on August 16, 2023.

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