What Is Dental Plaque and Tartar? … And Why You Should Know The Answer

Plaque and tartar are sometimes viewed as synonymous terms. Even dental professionals sometimes use them interchangeably when talking to patients. But, if we are being precise, plaque is actually the soft sticky substance that you often see coating the teeth after meals and can easily be removed with brushing and flossing. Tartar, on the other hand, is an antiquated term that describes plaque after it has hardened onto the tooth structure and can no longer be removed by a toothbrush and floss.

Plaque begins to form on your teeth immediately after you clean your teeth. It is formed by the many millions of bacteria that reside in your mouth, with an estimated 1000 bacterial species ganging together to form the biofilm that is plaque. Take a clean fingernail and scrape a front tooth (if you haven’t brushed or eaten in a few hours) – That yellow goo holds millions of individual bacteria! Disclosing tablets can also help you to spot dental plaque build-up.


Image of tartar build up on lower teeth

Tartar build up from poor oral hygiene

How Plaque Turns Into Tartar

If plaque is not removed quickly it soon begins to absorb calcium and others minerals found in foods and saliva, which initiates the process of hardening – almost like concrete. This process can begin even within just a few hours of eating , but generally can start after about 48 hours, if the plaque is left uncleaned. It can take around 10 days for the plaque to fully harden into calculus, but this time can and does vary between individuals. The modern term we use for this is “calculus” because it more accurately describes the process of calcification that is actually happening to the plaque. Calculus is the preferred medical term for tartar these days.

Once the soft plaque has hardened onto the teeth as tartar, the only way it can be removed is with a professional cleaning. By then, much damage can be done to the teeth and gums such as gingivitis, gum recession, cavities and more, all of which can cause painful and permanent alterations to your oral health.


Swollen gums due to very poor oral hygiene and resultant periodontal disease

Plaque as shown here is typically whiter and ‘fluffier’ in appearance than calculus/tartar

What Damage Do They Do?

Both plaque and tartar are dangerous in their own way. Plaque is teeming with live bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease and tartar is a hard, porous structure that acts as a magnet for new plaque to easily adhere to. Over time, the latter continues to grow larger and extend under the gum line carrying the harmful plaque bacteria with it. The two work symbiotically with each other, ultimately to the detriment of your mouth, causing both cavities and periodontal disease.

In turn, these diseases (especially gum disease) lead to further breakdown of oral and overall health. For example, periodontal disease is linked to heart disease, diabetes, respiratory diseases and some cancers. For women it is also associated with pre-term low-birth weight babies. The list of associations between oral health and overall health is longer than what we listed here and gets longer ever year.


Before and after dental scaling

Calculus build-up before and after dental scaling

Bottom line:

As you can see, plaque and tartar build-up is nothing to take lightly. It is essential to treat it proactively. Brushing and flossing after every meal, for example, helps to remove soft plaque before it has a chance to calcify onto the teeth. Rinsing at least daily with an anti-septic rinse helps inhibit the growth of bacteria in the mouth.

For daily cavity prevention try switching out your sugary snacks and chewing gum for sweets and gum that are sweetened by xylitol, a nature-based substance that has strong anti-cavity and re-mineralization capabilities.

Not to be overlooked is the necessary care from dental professionals. Typically, only the healthiest of mouths qualify for a 6-month cleaning and check up interval. But even if you have to see the dentist every 3 or 4 months to stay healthy, you will never regret the investment you make in your dental health.


Knowledge is power” as they say, and that is certainly true when it comes to your teeth. Knowing the powerful links between oral and overall health should motivate all of us to be proactive in the battle against plaque and tartar. A personalized home care and professional care routine can help keep your mouth and the rest of your body happy and healthy for a lifetime!

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