Plaque vs tartar: What’s the difference between these dental hygiene issues?

Plaque and tartar are both dental hygiene issues that differ in their build-up process and treatment options. Find out the differences between plaque and tartar.
A doctor inspecting teeth for plaque or tartar
Know what makes plaque and tartar different. Image courtesy: Freepik
Natalia Ningthoujam Published: 1 Jun 2024, 08:59 am IST
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Plaque, a sticky biofilm that coats your teeth, can damage your teeth and gums. It is common for people to think that plaque, which begins to form on teeth within hours after eating, and tartar, are the same dental issue. While poor oral hygiene is blamed for both the dental issues, they also have a few key differences. Right from appearance to how they are formed and treated, plaque and tartar are different. Read on to know the differences between plaque and tartar.

What is plaque?

Plaque is a soft, sticky biofilm that forms on your teeth, consisting primarily of bacteria, saliva, and food particles. This film is colourless or pale yellow and develops when bacteria in the mouth interact with carbohydrates from sugary or starchy foods. The bacteria metabolise these sugars, producing acids that attack tooth enamel, leading to tooth decay and cavities if not removed promptly, says dental surgeon Dr Sacheev Nanda. Plaque begins to form on teeth just a few hours after eating. It is most noticeable when you run your tongue over your teeth and feel a fuzzy or slippery layer, especially after consuming sweet foods.

A woman brushing teeth to prevent plaque and tartar
Unlike plaque, which is soft and sticky, tartar is hard and rough. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock

What is tartar?

Tartar, also known as calculus, is a hardened form of dental plaque that develops when plaque is not adequately removed from the teeth. Over time, plaque combines with minerals in saliva, such as calcium and phosphate, and calcifies into tartar, typically within 24 to 72 hours. Unlike plaque, which is soft and sticky, tartar is hard and rough, making it more difficult to remove.

What are the differences between plaque and tartar?

Understanding the differences between plaque and tartar is crucial for maintaining good oral health and preventing more serious dental issues. People who often have plaque problem are more likely to experience caries, periodontal disease and tooth loss, according to a 2011 study published in The Journal of the American Dental Association.

Here are the key differences between plaque and tartar:

1. Appearance

Plaque is a colourless or pale yellow sticky film that gets formed on the teeth. It is generally not visible unless stained by foods. Tartar is a hardened, yellow or brown deposit that can form on the teeth and gum line. It is easily visible and appears rough and crusty, says the expert.

2. Build-up process

Plaque forms when bacteria in the mouth mix with sugary or starchy foods. It starts to develop just a few hours after eating and can accumulate quickly if not removed through proper oral hygiene. Tartar forms when plaque is not adequately removed. Plaque gets hardened usually within 24 to 72 hours, and turns into tartar.

3. Symptoms and risk factors

Symptoms of plaque build-up include bad breath, a fuzzy feeling on the teeth, and potential tooth decay. Risk factors include poor oral hygiene, high-sugar diets, and dry mouth, says Dr Nanda. Symptoms of tartar include yellow or brown deposits on the teeth, gum inflammation, and bleeding gums. Risk factors are inadequate plaque removal, smoking, and diabetes.

4. Causes and effects

The primary cause of plaque is the interaction between food particles, especially sugars and starches, and bacteria in the mouth. If not removed, plaque can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Tartar forms from the mineralisation of plaque that is not removed. It can cause more severe dental issues, such as advanced gum disease (periodontitis), and creates a rough surface that makes it easier for more plaque to adhere, worsening the problem.

5. Treatment and removal methods

Plaque can be effectively removed by regular brushing and flossing. Using fluoride toothpaste and antibacterial mouthwashes can also help control plaque build-up. Tartar cannot be removed by regular brushing and flossing once it has formed. It requires professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist, typically through a deep cleaning procedure called scaling, says the expert.

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How to prevent plaque build-up?

Here are some tips to prevent plaque build-up:

1. Regular brushing

Brush your teeth after waking up and before sleeping with fluoride toothpaste. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and ensure to cover all tooth surfaces, including the gum line and back teeth, for at least two minutes each time.

2. Proper flossing

Flossing is a good habit, as it can remove plaque. It also helps to take out food particles from between teeth and under the gum line. Flossing can help to reach areas that a toothbrush cannot, says the expert.

Woman using a dental floss to prevent plaque or tartar
Flossing is good for your oral health. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

3. Use mouthwash

Rinse your mouth with an antibacterial or fluoride mouthwash to help reduce bacteria that cause plaque. These types of mouthwash can also strengthen tooth enamel.

4. Healthy diet

Try to have less sugary and starchy foods and drinks, as these contribute to plaque formation. Instead, eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains for the sake of your oral health. Also, drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially after meals, to help wash away food particles and reduce plaque build-up.

5. Regular dental check-ups

Visit your dentist at least twice a year for professional cleanings as well as check-ups. Dentists can remove plaque and tartar that have accumulated and check for any early signs of dental issues.

By following these preventive measures, you can effectively manage plaque and tartar build-up.

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About the Author

Natalia Ningthoujam has written on various subjects - from music to films and fashion to lifestyle - as a journalist in her career that started in 2010. After getting stories from the crime scene, police headquarters, and conducting interviews with celebrities, she is now writing on health and wellness which has become her focus area. ...Read More

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