What is Dental Plaque?

Plaque is one of those dental buzzwords you expect to hear every time you visit the dentist’s office. If you haven’t brushed in a while, you might hear about your plaque buildup or see a demonstration from your oral hygienist on how to best combat plaque with your toothbrush and specific flossing techniques.

While most people recognize plaque as the fuzzy sensation on their teeth when they haven’t brushed in a while, you may not quite know exactly what plaque on your teeth is, or why it’s so important to clean it off. The reality is that plaque is one of your teeth’s worst enemies, contributing to several dental diseases and even affecting your overall health if you don’t keep up on your oral hygiene.

What is Plaque on Teeth?

You are likely very familiar with what plaque feels like. If you run your tongue over your teeth before you brush your teeth or after you’ve eaten a meal, you’ll probably feel an almost fuzzy film on the surface of your teeth — that film is plaque.

Plaque — also called dental plaque, tooth plaque, microbial plaque or dental biofilm — is a sticky film that forms on the surface of your teeth. This soft biofilm is either colorless or slightly yellow and continuously forms from the combination of saliva, food and fluids in your mouth, as well as the bacteria deposits those substances create. For each deposit, millions of bacteria congregate, feeding on the simple sugars leftover from your meals. Generally, this plaque starts building on the teeth between four and 12 hours after brushing and tends to collect between the teeth and along the gum line.

How Does Plaque Build Up?

Dental plaque is continuously building up because the saliva, food and fluids in the mouth create a perfect environment for bacterial growth. The extent to which plaque builds up varies based on two main factors: diet and hygiene.

Certain foods contribute most to plaque formation. Mostly, these are foods that contain carbohydrates or simple sugars. The bacteria in plaque feed on the simple sugars created when saliva breaks down these carbohydrates. Some of the most carbohydrate-packed foods include sweets and sodas, though fruit, milk and bread also contain sugars that can contribute to bacterial growth.

Plaque buildup gets worse if you do not practice good oral hygiene. Brushing and flossing regularly can help you manage plaque buildup and prevent it from accumulating.

Why Does Plaque Matter?

While plaque is a naturally forming substance, that does not mean it is harmless. When the bacteria in plaque consume and process simple sugars from your diet, they excrete acid as a waste product, mixing in with the plaque. This acid in the plaque can cause numerous oral and general health problems if you do not remove it through brushing and flossing.

Some of the issues plaque can cause include:



  • Enamel Degradation: If acid sits on the surface of your teeth, it can cause the enamel to break down over time. Once the enamel has degraded past a certain point, this leaves the tooth vulnerable to further attacks, eventually leading to tooth decay.
  • Tooth Decay: If the enamel of the tooth is degraded enough, the acid in plaque can eat into the tooth, forming a hole — or cavity — in the surface of the tooth.
  • Tooth Discoloration: If you covet having shining, beautiful teeth, removing plaque should be a high priority in your daily routine. Plaque often has a yellow color, and tartar can be yellow or brown. The buildup of either of these substances can cause your teeth to look chronically dirty.
  • Bad Breath: The bacteria and food particles in plaque can also contribute to bad breath, especially if they have been building up over a longer period.
  • Tartar Buildup: When you don’t brush and floss on a daily basis, the plaque that builds up can eventually harden and form calculus — or tartar — a porous, rough substance. Tartar tends to form most along the gum line and makes it even more difficult to clean your teeth of plaque, leading to even more tartar buildup over time. On top of it all, tartar is extremely difficult to remove, and patients should not attempt to remove it themselves — unlike plaque removal, tartar removal requires the intervention of a dentist or dental hygienist. If this buildup is allowed to continue, tartar can start pushing against the gums, resulting in gum disease.
  • Gingivitis: Gum disease is most commonly caused by tartar buildup, which occurs when plaque is allowed to collect and harden. If enough tartar builds up underneath the gums, it can start pushing the gums away from the teeth and lead to early gum disease, called gingivitis. Symptoms of gingivitis include red, swollen gums, as well as bleeding during brushing. Gingivitis is reversible and often treated by removing the tartar buildup.
  • Periodontitis: If left untreated, gingivitis can lead to a more advanced gum disease called periodontitis. Periodontitis occurs when bacterial infections in the gums start to break down the gums and bone around your teeth. If left untreated, periodontitis can result in gum tissue loss and, in extreme cases, bone loss. If a patient loses enough of the bone supporting their teeth, they can start to lose their teeth.
  • General Disease: The bacteria in plaque attack your body’s immune system just as much as any other type of bacteria in the body. These repeated attacks cause your immune system to be overactive, leading to unnecessary inflammation and fatigue. Over time, this can contribute to premature aging, systemic disease and other issues throughout the body. In fact, some studies link the bacteria in gum disease to heart disease.


You can prevent any of these conditions and problems with a consistent, thorough oral hygiene routine and regular visits to your dentist’s office.

How to Tell If You Have Plaque

Plaque is relatively easy to find if you haven’t brushed your teeth in a while — if you touch your teeth with your tongue, you’ll notice a fuzzy feeling on the surface. You may also see a thick, white deposit forming along your gum lines if you look at your teeth closely. All of this is dental plaque.

If you brush more regularly, it can be a bit more difficult to see plaque due to its lack of color. If you want to visualize your plaque for yourself, you can buy a disclosing tablet from your local pharmacy or rinse out your mouth with a few drops of food coloring in water — both of these options will temporarily stain the plaque on your teeth so you can see it more easily. This will help you judge how well you are brushing and flossing, as well as which areas you may need to pay more attention to. Don’t worry about the stain sticking around — just brush your teeth to remove the discoloration.

How to Tell If You Have Tartar

If you leave plaque on your teeth, the minerals in your saliva begin to deposit into the plaque, causing it to calcify and harden, forming tartar. Tartar, or calculus, tends to form within 24 to 72 hours of plaque forming on the teeth, though the average amount of time needed for it to develop is 48 hours after plaque deposits on the teeth.

About 68 percent of adults have some form of tartar on their teeth, so if you know you’ve repeatedly been neglecting your oral hygiene routine for multiple days in a row, its a good bet that you have some form of tartar. Other risk factors include braces, dry mouth, crowded teeth, smoking and advanced aging.

A good way to see if you have tartar buildup on your teeth is to floss or run a toothpick over your teeth along the gumlines. If you feel any ridges close to the gumline, this often indicates tartar buildup. You might also notice persistent discoloration at or below your gumline since tartar has a darker coloration than plaque and can often appear yellow or brown. If you discover noticeable tartar buildup, it may be a good time to set up an appointment at your dentist’s office for tartar removal.

How to Combat Plaque

Removing plaque is easy but requires consistent maintenance. Since plaque is continually building up within your mouth, a daily routine is absolutely essential. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help you get rid of plaque:



  • Brush Twice a Day: Brushing your teeth twice a day removes plaque from the surfaces of your teeth, protecting them from decay. You can use a soft-bristled toothbrush manually, or opt for an electric toothbrush for a little more power. Either way, choose a model approved by the American Dental Association (ADA). Then, brush your teeth with an anti-plaque, fluoride toothpaste twice a day for at least two minutes.
  • Floss Once a Day:  It’s easy for food to get stuck between your teeth and feed dental plaque, and brushing alone won’t reach all the nooks and crannies in your mouth. In fact, brushing alone only removes 40 percent of plaque. To combat plaque and prevent tartar buildup between the teeth, you need to learn how to floss correctly and make a habit of flossing daily.
  • Use Mouthwash: Since dental plaque is sticky in nature, it isn’t going to come off with a quick rinse of mouthwash — you still have to brush and floss to remove plaque from teeth. However, mouthwash can be a powerful tool for fighting off plaque buildup and gum disease. Try to find an option specifically for plaque and tartar protection — this can help prevent plaque regrowth, so it doesn’t build up as quickly throughout your day.
  • Visit Your Dentist: Your dentist and dental hygienist are the only people who can truly remove tartar from your teeth, and they can help you determine if your brushing routine is doing enough to fight off plaque. It’s best to visit your dentist every six months, but be sure to at least schedule an appointment with them once a year for a cleaning and oral exam.


With these methods, you can catch plaque in its earliest stages and prevent it from becoming tartar and potentially gum disease.

If you have enough plaque and tartar buildup that you’re showing signs of gingivitis, there’s no need to panic. You can usually reverse gingivitis if you see your dentist for a cleaning and adopt a regular dental hygiene routine, complete with brushing, flossing and antiseptic mouthwash.


How to Prevent Plaque

Preventing plaque and tartar buildup relies heavily on a consistent dental hygiene routine and regular visits to your dentist, but there are other ways to fight off plaque. Some tried-and-true tips for preventing plaque include the following:



  • Use Dental Sealants: Dental sealants are thin, plastic coatings painted on the surfaces of your teeth to prevent them from breaking down or forming cavities. These sealants can help extend the life of your teeth and prevent plaque and tartar from having as much of an effect on your health. Only a professional can apply these, so ask your dentist if a dental sealant would be appropriate for you.
  • Follow a Balanced Diet: Because the bacteria in plaque feed best on simple sugars from candy and carbohydrates, eating a balanced diet can be very helpful in the fight against plaque. A diet high in vegetables and limited in starchy carbs and sugars can limit the amount of food the bacteria can easily use, mitigating plaque growth. While a balanced diet will not remove the need for a good oral hygiene routine, it can help prevent plaque and tartar from building up as quickly.
  • Don’t Smoke: Studies have shown that people who smoke cigarettes, cigars or use other tobacco products are more likely to have plaque buildup and tartar. If you are a smoker, this is just one more reason to try to quit.
  • Practice Basic Dental Hygiene: While we’re sure we sound like a broken record at this point, we cannot be more adamant about this — the key to plaque prevention and removal is a consistent daily oral hygiene routine, complete with brushing, flossing and ideally an antibacterial mouthwash. It’s also best to see your dentist or oral hygienist every six months to help identify any problem areas and clean your teeth of tartar and plaque buildup.



By combining these techniques, you can fight off plaque before it even begins to form, mitigating buildup and reducing your chances of developing gum disease. Regardless of how many of these steps you follow, however, visiting and speaking with your dentist on a regular basis is a large part of maintaining a healthy smile. If you’re looking for a dental office that places patient care as a top priority, Dental Choice is here to help.

Schedule a Cleaning at Dental Choice Today

If you struggle with plaque buildup or are concerned about tartar on your teeth, we may be able to help. Dental Choice offers quality cleaning services that can help you achieve a healthier, more confident smile. With more than 20 years of experience in patient care, we can provide compassionate dental care for the whole family. Schedule an appointment with our team today.

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