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Plaque vs. tartar: what’s the difference?

Home > Plaque vs. tartar: what’s the difference?

Plaque vs. tartar: what’s the difference?

Plaque vs. tartar: what's the difference?

You know the drill – brush, floss, and visit the dentist to help protect your oral health. Routine oral health care is necessary to reduce plaque and tartar, lessen the chances of cavities and gum disease, and keep your teeth white. However, many patients are unaware of the difference between plaque and tartar and how they contribute to dental problems.

Here, we will delve into the topic of plaque versus tartar, including the signs, causes, and removal options for each.

What is dental plaque?

Everyone has plaque on their teeth. It develops from the foods that we eat. However, this sticky film can be removed at home with proper oral hygiene habits.

Signs of dental calculus

Plaque, or dental calculus, is the soft, sticky film of bacteria that forms on the teeth and along the gum line. Plaque is colorless. However, it creates a fuzzy feeling on the teeth when you run your tongue over them.

Other signs of plaque include bad breath (halitosis) and red, swollen gums that may signify gingivitis or gum disease.

Causes and formation of plaque on teeth

Plaque buildup is not limited to the visible parts of your teeth. It can also form along the roots and under the gum line. This formation occurs throughout the day. When the teeth are not brushed soon enough after eating, the bacteria, acids, and sugars create plaque.

Everyone develops plaque on their teeth; there is no stopping it. However, the following factors may increase the risk of plaque development: 

  • Regular consumption of sugary foods and/or drinks
  • Eating starchy foods, such as bread and pasta
  • Dry mouth due to medications or health conditions
  • History of radiation therapy on the head or neck
  • Smoking

What is tartar?

Although many people often use the terms plaque and tartar interchangeably, the two are very different. Tartar develops if plaque is not removed in a timely manner.

Signs of tartar

The symptoms of tartar include:

  • A rough feeling on the teeth, especially along the gum line
  • Swollen gums
  • Gums that bleed easily
  • Yellowish discoloration on the teeth

Causes and formation of tartar

When plaque remains on the teeth for too long, it hardens, forming tartar. Tartar is much harder to remove, a task that can only be performed by a dental professional. Both plaque and tartar can be diagnosed during a routine dental exam.

How do plaque and tartar impact oral health?

If plaque and tartar remain on the teeth for too long, they can cause complications for your oral health. Potential problems may include:

Tooth discoloration

Plaque is clear, but as it hardens into tartar, it takes on a pale yellow hue. This causes the teeth to look stained as well. Teeth whitening treatments alone will not correct discoloration. A professional deep cleaning is needed first to remove the tartar so the bleaching treatment is effective.


Plaque forms on the teeth all day long. Unfortunately, as you eat, the bacteria in plaque are also feeding off the sugars on your teeth. The bacteria produce acids which can then erode your tooth enamel, leading to tooth decay and cavities.

Gum disease

As tartar forms along the gum line, bacteria start to spread into the gums causing problems. When the gums turn red or swollen or begin to bleed when flossing, you know there is a problem. Left untreated, periodontal disease can lead to receding gums and tooth loss.

Bad breath

Also called halitosis, bad breath is often a sign of plaque formation. As bacteria break down food on the teeth, the combination of food particles and bacteria creates an odor. Regular brushing and flossing are essential to remove these particles. Otherwise, plaque builds up, and the odor remains.

How do you get plaque and tartar off your teeth?

Prevention is often the best medicine. Good oral hygiene is essential to prevent plaque buildup and oral health problems such as tooth decay and gum disease. Protect your smile by preventing tartar formation. Plaque removal is simpler when it is done regularly rather than allowing it to build up. 

Remember to use good oral habits, such as:

  • Brushing twice daily, morning and night
  • Flossing once daily
  • Drinking plenty of water to increase saliva production, which aids in keeping bacteria off the teeth

Chewing sugarless gum is another option to help remove plaque after meals, when brushing may not be an option.

A small amount of dental plaque can be removed through routine brushing and flossing. Once plaque becomes tartar, only a professional cleaning can remove the substance. Depending on the amount of tartar, a deeper root planing and scaling may be recommended to remove tartar along and below the gum line. This is often advised for patients who are also showing signs of gum disease due to tartar buildup.

Once plaque and tartar are removed, your dental team may recommend additional treatments to manage your oral health. These treatments may include:

  • Fluoride treatments
  • Dental sealants
  • Prescription toothpaste or mouthwash
  • Dry mouth treatments

plaque and tartar removal in Ballantyne Charlotte NC

Get plaque and tartar removal from your Ballantyne dentist!

Stay on top of your oral health by following good oral habits at home and visiting your Ballantyne dentists regularly!

At Aten & Garofalo Dentistry, we provide comprehensive dental services in Ballantyne. Our routine dental exams are scheduled every six months and help remove plaque and tartar before significant problems develop. We also offer restorative dentistry when there are issues with the teeth and gums.

Let us help you maintain your oral health! Book an appointment today!

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