Plaque vs. Tartar: What Are the Differences?

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Plaque is a kind of sticky film found on the teeth. It forms when the bacteria in the mouth is mixed with sugary or starchy food and drinks. The bacteria in the mouth, acids, and carbohydrates from food or drinks mix together and form into this colorless substance.

If plaque isn’t removed with regular teeth brushing, it can cause the enamel of the teeth to break down and eventually cause cavities. Plaque that is not cleaned with brushing can also harden into tartar, also called calculus.

The difference between plaque and tartar is that tartar is a hardened version of plaque. Tartar removal can be much more difficult than plaque removal and can only be done by a dentist.

Learn more about the differences between plaque and tartar.

Plaque vs. Tartar Symptoms

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Symptoms

Although similar, the symptoms of plaque and tartar can be different.

The symptoms of plaque include:

  • A fuzzy feeling on the teeth
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Tender, red, or swollen gums that may bleed when brushing

The symptoms of tartar include:

  • A rough feeling on the teeth
  • Swollen gum tissue
  • Gums that bleed easily

Causes

Plaque is constantly forming on the teeth. It is caused by bacteria found in the mouth coming into contact with sugar or starch found in food or drinks. Drinks like milk, juice, and soda, and foods like fruit, pasta, and bread contain carbohydrates.

When consumed, bacteria found in the mouth releases a kind of acid to help break down these carbohydrates. These acids, together with the bacteria and carbohydrates, combine together to form the sticky film called plaque.

Tartar is caused when plaque isn’t adequately removed through daily teeth brushing and cleaning between the teeth. This causes the plaque to harden and creates tartar.

Diagnosis

Both plaque and tartar can be diagnosed by a dentist in a routine dental checkup.

During an appointment, the dentist or hygienist will examine the mouth and gums, and also ask about your medical history. Depending on the circumstances, the dentist or hygienist may use instruments to inspect the gums.

The dentist or hygienist will be able to identify plaque and tartar just by examining the mouth and gums. No special tests are needed for this. Depending on what they find, they may recommend an X-ray to check for cavities.

Treatment

Plaque and tartar require different treatments. Plaque can be treated with good oral hygiene, including proper daily brushing and flossing. Tartar can only be treated by a dentist with a professional oral cleaning.

A dentist may also suggest other treatment options like dental sealants and fluoride treatments. The dentist will be able to advise the best treatment option for you.

Oral Hygiene

Plaque can be treated at home through a good oral hygiene routine. Brushing the teeth twice a day and flossing at least once a day will remove plaque properly.

Proper Brushing Technique

To brush the teeth properly:

  • Hold the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle against the gum line.
  • Use short strokes, about half a tooth wide.
  • Brush gently. Brushing too hard can cause tooth sensitivity or receding gums.
  • Brush all of the surfaces of the teeth, outside and inside.
  • Remember to brush the pits and crevices of the top of the teeth where you chew.
  • Brush for two to three minutes.

While brushing will remove the plaque from the teeth, it won’t help remove plaque between the teeth, under braces, or under the gum line. This is why flossing at least once a day is important. Dentists typically recommend using unwaxed floss, as it is thinner and easier to use.

Proper Flossing Technique

To floss effectively:

  • Gently insert the floss between two teeth and use a back and forth motion to move the floss.
  • Curve the piece of floss along the edges of the teeth to mimic a “C” shape, and move this up and down the sides of each tooth.
  • Repeat flossing between every tooth.
  • Don’t forget to floss the backs of the very back teeth.

Tartar cannot be treated at home. It cannot be removed with regular teeth brushing. Only a dentist can remove tartar. Treatment for tartar involves a visit to the dentist and a professional oral cleaning.

At a dentist visit, the dentist or hygienist will scrape off plaque and tartar. They may also suggest other treatment options.

Dental Sealants

Sealants are a painted-on plastic coating applied to the areas of the teeth involved in chewing. Sealants are often applied on the molars and premolars.

The liquid seal is applied to the teeth where it covers the grooves in each tooth. It is then “cured” or hardened using a special kind of light. This creates a hard shield that protects the enamel of the teeth from plaque and tartar.

Fluoride Treatments

Fluoride is a mineral that helps prevent tooth decay by building the resistance of the teeth against acid. A fluoride treatment may also reverse early decay in the teeth.

Prevention

  • Brush your teeth twice a day for two to three minutes.
  • Floss every day. Flossing before brushing removes more plaque.
  • Use mouthwash.
  • Chew a sugarless gum. If it’s not possible to brush your teeth soon after drinking or eating, chewing a sugarless gum may help prevent plaque. Look for a gum that has the seal of the American Dental Association (ADA).
  • Eat a healthy diet. Limit starchy and sugary foods and drinks like soda and white bread, and choose fruits and vegetables and healthy snacks.
  • Visit the dentist. Most people should see the dentist for a checkup once or twice a year, but some people will need more visits. Even if you don’t have symptoms, you should visit the dentist. A dentist will help find dental-related problems early, when treatment is simpler and often more affordable. A dentist can also identify other conditions or diseases that show symptoms in the mouth.

Summary

Plaque forms as a reaction between bacteria in the mouth, acid, and sugars and starches found in food. Plaque forms a sticky film on the teeth and should be removed through regular teeth brushing and flossing. If not removed properly, plaque will harden into tartar. Tartar can only be removed by a dentist. Both plaque and tartar can be prevented with good oral hygiene. If you have any concerns about your teeth or oral health, you should speak with your dentist.

A Word From Verywell

While plaque can be managed with regular at-home dental care, tartar needs to be taken care of by a dentist. Finding dental care can be difficult, depending on insurance, location, office hours, and other factors. We have compiled a list of tips for finding a dentist to help you find the right care for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you scrape plaque off your teeth?

You can remove plaque from the teeth using a toothbrush and toothpaste, and through flossing. Brush the teeth for two to three minutes twice a day, and floss once a day.

When does plaque turn into tartar?

If not properly removed through teeth brushing and flossing, plaque will harden into tartar. Roughly one in 10 people tend to accumulate tartar quickly. To prevent tartar, you must first prevent plaque.

How long should you brush your teeth to avoid plaque buildup?

Dentists recommend brushing the teeth for two to three minutes twice a day. 

How does the dentist remove hardened tartar?

The dentist or hygienist will scrape off tartar during a full oral cleaning in a dentist’s office. Only a dentist can remove tartar; this cannot be done with a regular toothbrush at home.

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Article Sources
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