07 Mar 2019

What are Plaque and Tartar

Carrying on from our last post on what the numbers mean during a check-up, we were recently asked what the difference was between plaque and tartar and aren’t they basically the same thing.

So let’s clear up what they are, how they are formed on the teeth, why you can’t have one without the other and how to prevent either of them from forming.

What is dental plaque and how does it form?

Plaque is a common dental condition we see here at the surgery. When there’s a build up of plaque on your teeth it can eat away at the enamel which protects the teeth causing cavities and decay, it can also in extreme cases cause bad breath and turn your teeth yellow.

Plaque is a sticky substance that is a result of leftover food particles and saliva that mix in your mouth, it forms as a result of chemical reactions that take place in your mouth. For this to happen certain conditions need to be present, your mouth needs bacteria, carbohydrates, food particles, and saliva. Carbohydrates are found in most foods – even healthy food like fruits and vegetables. Foods high in sugar contain more carbohydrates, so if you eat a lot of sweets and drink sugary fizzy drinks you are more at risk to form plaque.

If you don’t floss and brush your teeth after meals then plaque will start to build on your teeth, plaque contains bacteria which can be a problem and start to contribute to tooth decay and gum disease. If plaque isn’t removed and remains on your teeth for a number of days it will eventually harden and turn into tartar (see below)

How to prevent plaque

You can prevent plaque from forming in two ways. First, look at your diet. Since plaque needs carbohydrates to form, the fewer you eat, the better. Avoid sweets and cakes and other sweet things as much as possible in order to prevent plaque build-up.

It’s not possible to avoid all carbohydrates, we need them to maintain a healthy and complete diet. Many healthy foods still contain carbohydrates such as bread, cereal, potatoes, and corn. Therefore, some plaque is going to form when you eat.

In order to resolve this problem, the best thing you can do is brush and floss your teeth twice a day. Brushing removes plaque that has built up on your teeth. Flossing before you brush your teeth will help remove anything that’s trapped between your teeth. By flossing, you give bacteria less of a chance to start the process to form plaque.

Which brings us on to tartar.

What is tartar?

Tartar, sometimes called calculus, is plaque that has hardened on your teeth. Tartar is mostly mineralised dead bacteria, along with a small amount of mineralised proteins from saliva. Tartar gives plaque more surface area on which to grow and a much stickier surface to adhere, which can lead to more serious conditions, such as cavities and gum disease. Not only can tartar threaten the health of your teeth and gums, it is also a cosmetic problem. Because tartar is more porous, it absorbs stains easily. So, if you are a coffee or tea drinker, or if you smoke, it is especially important to prevent tartar buildup.

How does tartar affect teeth and gums?

Tartar can make it difficult to brush and floss like you should so in turn can lead to cavities and tooth decay.
Any tartar that forms above your gum line could be bad for you. That’s because the bacteria in it can irritate and damage your gums. Over time, this might lead to progressive gum disease. The mildest form of gum disease is called gingivitis. It can usually be stopped and reversed if you brush, floss, use an antiseptic mouthwash, and get regular check-ups from us and visit the hygienist to have the tartar removed. If not, it can get worse, to the point where pockets form between the gums and teeth and get infected by bacteria. That’s called periodontitis. Your immune system sends chemicals to fight back and they mix with bacteria and the stuff it puts out. The resulting stew can damage the bones and tissues that hold your teeth in place. Also, some studies link the bacteria in gum disease to heart disease and other health problems.

How to prevent both plaque and tartar from forming

  1. Brush regularly, twice a day for two minutes.
  2. Choose tartar-control toothpaste with fluoride. Fluoride will help repair enamel damage. Some products have a substance called triclosan that fights the bacteria in plaque.
  3. Make sure to floss, dental floss is the only way to remove plaque between your teeth and keep tartar out of these hard-to-reach areas.
  4. Watch your diet. The bacteria in your mouth thrive on sugary and starchy foods. When they’re exposed to those foods, they release harmful acids. If you can brush your teeth after eating even better!
  5. Don’t smoke. Studies show that people who smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products are more likely to have tartar.

So now you know, they are indeed connected you can’t have tartar without first having plaque. With some good dental hygiene outlined above and elsewhere on our website you can reduce the risk of plaque and prevent tartar from happening. Now when you hear us talk about either condition you’ll understand what we mean!

If you’re worried about either condition and think you might have a problem why not book a check up with us.

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