What Is Plaque? A Complete Guide to the Weird Film on Your Teeth

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Dental plaque is a clear, sticky coating of bacteria that forms on the teeth. It develops when bacteria in the mouth react with sugars and starches found in certain foods and drinks.

Plaque can be removed with regular toothbrushing and flossing. But if it's left on the teeth, plaque can build up and attack the tooth's outer layer (enamel), leading to dental issues like tooth decay, cavities, and gum disease.

This article discusses how dental plaque develops on the teeth and how to prevent plaque buildup.

A woman brushing her teeth looking in the mirror.

Slavica / Getty Images

What Causes Plaque?

Plaque, a clear, sticky film on the teeth, plays a significant role in tooth decay. It forms from a combination of bacteria, saliva, sugars, and starches in the mouth.

The process starts when you consume carbohydrate-rich foods and drinks, such as milk, juice, soft drinks, bread, chips, pasta, fruit, and candy. Once the food and drink particles come into contact with bacteria in the mouth, plaque is created and acids are produced. If you don’t brush your teeth soon after eating or drinking, the acids will start to eat away at the tooth's enamel.

Plaque that is not routinely removed through twice-daily toothbrushing and flossing can start to build up and harden into a substance known as tartar. Tartar can only be removed by a dentist or dental hygienist. All of this can lead to cavities, tooth decay, and gum disease. Left untreated, this can cause pain, infection, and tooth loss.

Causes Recap

Plaque forms as a result of natural reactions between bacteria, saliva, and carbohydrates in your mouth. If you brush and floss your teeth regularly to remove it, plaque usually isn't a concern. But when it stays on the teeth, plaque can build up and harden, causing tooth decay and gum disease.

How Do You Know If Your Teeth Have Too Much Plaque?

Plaque is constantly forming on the teeth, so everyone has some amount of plaque in their mouth. It needs to be regularly removed, because a buildup of plaque can cause dental health issues like tooth decay and gum disease.

But since plaque isn't easily visible, it's hard to tell if your teeth are coated with too much. Some signs that may indicate too much plaque has formed in your mouth are:

To confirm any suspicions that too much plaque has built up, a few options include:

  • Dental exam: Getting your teeth professionally cleaned twice a year is key for detecting and eliminating any built-up plaque. By examining your mouth and gums, a dentist or dental hygienist can determine if too much plaque has accumulated on your teeth and remove it for you. If the buildup is severe, a dental X-ray may be recommended to check for signs of tooth decay, cavities, or gum disease.
  • At-home plaque identification test: Over-the-counter (OTC) products are also available to help identify areas of the mouth that have accumulated too much plaque. These include special test kits that use a safe dye to temporarily stain the plaque buildup, visibly highlighting any problem areas. While they can be helpful for a quick check at home, note that these tests are not meant to replace regular dental exams.

How Can You Prevent Plaque Buildup?

Plaque is going to form naturally, but there are a few proactive steps you can take to help prevent plaque buildup and protect your teeth, including:

  • Eating a healthy diet: Proper nutrition plays an important role in your dental health. Plaque needs carbohydrates to form, so the fewer you consume, the better off your teeth will be. While it’s not possible to completely eliminate all carbs, eating nutritional meals and limiting sugary drinks and foods can help prevent excess plaque from forming. When in doubt, drink plain water and choose whole fruits and vegetables over processed snacks.
  • Maintaining a dental hygiene routine at home: Experts recommend brushing your teeth twice a day for two to three minutes each time with a toothpaste containing fluoride​, and flossing your teeth at least once daily. This helps remove stubborn food particles that contribute to the formation of plaque. In addition, using a mouthwash can help kill off some of the bacteria that cause plaque. Keep in mind that mouthwash won't physically remove the plaque itself, so it should never replace brushing and flossing.
  • Making regular dental appointments: Visiting your dentist regularly for professional cleanings is key to preventing plaque buildup. It's recommended that most people see the dentist for a check-up twice a year, but some people may need more frequent visits if they're at higher risk for gum disease due to a medical condition, like diabetes. During your appointment, the dental hygienist can give you tips on brushing and flossing to remove the most plaque possible.

Care Without Dental Insurance

If dental insurance is not accessible to you, there are federally funded community health departments that offer low-cost or free dental care across the country. You can search for a nearby location using the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) website. 

For another source of low-cost preventive dental care, you might consider checking out the American Dental Association (ADA) or the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) for nearby dental colleges or dental hygiene schools.

Summary

Dental plaque is a clear, sticky substance that forms on the teeth as a reaction to bacteria in the mouth combined with carbohydrates from food and drink. Plaque can be removed with daily toothbrushing and flossing, but if it's left on the teeth, it can attack the tooth's enamel and lead to cavities, tooth decay, and gum disease.

Limiting sugar and starch in your diet and visiting the dentist regularly can help prevent plaque buildup, protecting your teeth and oral health.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone gets plaque on their teeth, so don't worry too much if you've recently overindulged in desserts and junk foods, or skipped a night of flossing. As long as you make a habit out of brushing and flossing twice a day, eating a mostly healthy diet, and visiting the dentist regularly, you should be able to keep plaque buildup to a minimum.

Keep in mind that oral health affects your overall health, so don't hesitate to ask a dental professional or other healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about plaque or accessing routine dental care.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is dental plaque normal?

    Yes. Everyone has dental plaque, and it’s usually not a big problem unless it builds up. People who may be more likely to get frequent plaque buildup include:

    • People who consume a lot of sugary or starchy foods or drinks
    • People who smoke
    • People who have dry mouth due to medications like antidepressants or conditions like Sjögren’s syndrome
    • People who have a history of head/neck radiation for cancer treatment
  • What is tartar?

    Tartar (also known as calculus) is a hardened version of plaque that can only be removed by a dentist. Tartar builds up when plaque isn’t adequately removed through regular toothbrushing, flossing, and dental check-ups. When tartar builds up, it can lead to gum disease, which causes sore, bleeding gums, painful chewing issues, and sometimes tooth loss. Roughly 1 in 10 people have a tendency to accumulate tartar quickly.

  • Should you scrape plaque off your own teeth?

    Plaque scraping should always be performed by a dental hygienist or a dentist, but you can safely and gently remove plaque from your own teeth at home by using a toothbrush, toothpaste, and thorough flossing. Visit your dentist twice a year, if possible, for help professionally removing any remaining plaque or tartar.

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17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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