Difference between plaque and tartar

If you’ve ever been to the dentist and they’ve mentioned ‘plaque’ or ‘tartar’, you’re probably aware that neither are desirable and both can ultimately lead to tooth decay and cavities. But what exactly are they, and how do they differ from each other? Let’s find out.

What is plaque?

Plaque is a clear, sticky film of bacteria that’s constantly building up on our teeth every day. This may sound unpleasant, but it’s perfectly normal and you can remove it simply by brushing twice a day and flossing.

Plaque by itself isn’t actually a big problem, but introduce sugar and it’s a different story. The bacteria feed off the sugars and create harmful acids in the process. Overtime these acids can erode the surface of your teeth, resulting in tooth decay and cavities.

Worst case scenario: these dental acids can even reach the pulp (the living tissue) of your tooth, causing irreversible damage. If this happens you may need root canal treatment to save the tooth, or you could even lose the tooth entirely and require a dental implant or bridge to fill the gap.

Plaque can also irritate your gums, potentially leading to gingivitis and gum disease. Gingivitis, which is an early form of gum disease, can usually be reversed through good oral hygiene, but more severe gum disease can lead to gum recession and even tooth loss.

Brush plaque away – every day

Plaque usually starts forming around the gumline, so pay special attention to this area when you brush your teeth. It can also build up in between your teeth, so make sure you floss once a day. You can put your brushing efficiency to the test by chewing on a ‘disclosing tablet’ after brushing your teeth.

These tablets contain a dye that will stain any remaining plaque, so you can easily see where you’ve missed. It’s not uncommon for people to continually miss the same spot – giving pesky plaque the opportunity to flourish and cause harm.

To further increase your chances of not developing tooth decay, try to cut back on sugary foods, or restrict them to mealtimes so you’re not continually feeding the bacteria on your teeth. Saliva can also help to wash away food and bacteria – so stay hydrated and try chewing sugar-free gum after meals for an extra boost.

What is tartar?

If plaque isn’t brushed away it can calcify and turn into tartar. This process can begin in as little as 48 hours, which is why it’s so important to brush and floss thoroughly and regularly. Unlike plaque, tartar unfortunately isn’t clear – it’s usually an undesirable shade of yellow or brown (see below!). Worse still, you can’t brush it away and you’ll need to see your dentist or hygienist to have it removed.
Tartar on teeth
Tartar also usually forms around the gumline, but it can also occur just underneath it, where it will be harder for you to spot. Like plaque, tartar can cause tooth decay and gum disease – it also provides a great home for plaque, providing it with a sticky surface and larger surface area to attach to.

Tartar not only causes damage, but it also looks quite unpleasant – and because it’s porous it stains easily. If left untreated, tartar will continue to build up and calcify – so it’s important to act sooner rather than later.

During your dental health check, your dentist will look out for the early signs of plaque build-up and tartar and take action before they become a problem.