How to Remove Plaque From Teeth

Plaque is a film of bacteria that forms on the teeth. Occurring naturally, good oral hygiene habits keep it at bay, and dental cleaning effectively removes it. However, if untreated, plaque can turn into a thicker buildup called tartar and lead to gum disease, tooth decay, cavities, and other dental issues.

Though only dental treatment can take on tartar, adjusting your brushing and flossing techniques, using baking soda, and oil pulling are among the effective at-home methods for removing plaque. To preserve the health of your smile, it’s important to understand how these issues arise, how they impact your oral health, and what you can do to tackle them.

This article will explore what causes plaque and how to prevent plaque and tartar from forming.

Woman in a dental chair getting her teeth cleaned

Aja Koska / Verywell Health

What Causes Plaque

Plaque is a sticky, colorless substance found on the teeth and around the gums. Consisting of bacteria, saliva, and other compounds, this “dental biofilm” continually develops in your mouth. If plaque is allowed to build up, it starts to damage the tooth enamel (the hard outer shell of teeth), leading to numerous dental issues.

How Plaque Forms in Your Mouth

Everyone’s mouth contains hundreds of kinds of bacteria, living on the gums, teeth, tongue, and other tissues. Plaque develops as some of these bacteria feed on sugars from foods and drinks rich in starch and carbohydrates. These include:

  • Milk
  • Soft drinks
  • Candy
  • Pasta
  • Fruit
  • Bread
  • Cookies  

Oral Hygeine After Meals

It’s a good idea to brush or floss your teeth shortly after consuming carbohydrate-rich foods or drinks. Plaque can start forming right after you eat or drink, which can lead to tooth decay and other issues.

Risks From Plaque and Tartar Buildup

The risks of plaque arise when it’s allowed to persist. The bacteria feeding on sugars in your mouth emit acids to help digest. If plaque isn’t removed, these acids start to erode your teeth. As this progresses, it hardens to form visible buildups called tartar or calculus.

Plaque and tartar buildups cause numerous dental issues, including:

Plaque vs. Tartar

Though tartar is an advancement of plaque, there are key differences between them. Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Appearance: Plaque is often invisible, though this film has a dull yellow color. Tartar is a visible, thicker mineral buildup on the teeth or around the gumline that can be white, yellow, brown, or black.
  • Time of development: Whereas it generally takes multiple days before tartar starts to appear, plaque is quicker to form, developing shortly after eating or drinking within hours of brushing.
  • Removal: Brushing and flossing can get rid of plaque and stop it from hardening. Tartar can only be removed with dental cleaning.  

How Plaque Causes Tartar to Form

Tartar arises when plaque isn’t removed. As the acids given off by the bacteria erode teeth, the teeth's calcium leaches into the plaque. This process causes the biofilm to thicken and harden, forming tartar. Because it’s an advancement of plaque, tartar tends to build up in harder-to-reach spaces, such as around the gumline and between teeth.

How to Prevent Plaque and Tartar From Forming

Put simply, the key to getting rid of plaque—and to stopping tartar from forming—is good oral hygiene. This means:

  • Brushing: Brush your teeth at least twice a day, using proper techniques.
  • Flossing: To get rid of food and plaque stuck between teeth, make sure to floss once a day.
  • Adjusting dietary habits: Avoid sugary foods, soft drinks, and alcohol, especially before bed. Sugary snacks between meals can also be harmful. Rinse, brush, or use mouthwash after consuming such foods or beverages.
  • Visiting the dentist: Plan on at least two dental cleaning and checkup appointments a year. Only dentists can remove tartar, and they’ll be able to screen for signs of more serious issues.  

How to Remove Plaque From Teeth

Largely, plaque buildup can be managed by regular and effective oral hygiene techniques. These are essential because removing plaque prevents it from hardening and becoming tartar. Alongside regular dental cleanings, a number of methods can help manage this issue.

Flossing for Better Plaque Removal

Flossing gets at plaque and food debris between teeth, along the gumline, and underneath braces where brushing can’t reach. It’s essential that you floss at least once a day as part of your oral health regimen. To ensure the best results, here’s a breakdown of the technique:

  • Careful insertion: Use about 18 inches of floss, wrapping most of it around your middle fingers. Holding the floss with your thumbs and forefingers, and while gently pulling back and forth, carefully place it between the teeth.
  • Cleaning: Bring the floss down to the gumline (but not below it) and curl it around the tooth to create a C shape. Then, pull the floss up and down both surfaces.
  • Repetition: Make sure to get every space between your teeth and don’t forget to floss the back sides of all of your molars. After you’re finished, make sure to throw away the used floss.   

Brushing Techniques That Help Remove Plaque

Brushing your teeth at least twice a day is another essential step for removing plaque and preventing buildup. In that effort, it’s important to use proper techniques. For manual tooth brushing, here’s what that looks like:

  • Timing: Brush for a minimum of two minutes per session: 30 seconds each for the outer and inner surfaces of the upper and lower sets of teeth. Use the timer on your phone or an egg timer to keep you on track.
  • Angle and scope: Generally, try to use a 45-degree angle when brushing, ensuring that you clean from the gumline to the top of the teeth.
  • Biting surfaces: When cleaning the biting surfaces, short sweeps are best; make sure the bristles access any pits or crevices.  
  • Inside surfaces: To clean the inside surfaces of your front teeth, hold the brush vertically and use back-and-forth motions. Make sure you get all the way to the gums.
  • Tongue and top: Make sure to gently brush your tongue and the top of your mouth because bacteria can also reside there.

For many, electric toothbrushes are easier to use and more effective than the manual type. They are also generally set to ensure you’re brushing the necessary amount of time. Talk to your dentist about these and other tools to help you care for your teeth.  

Brushing With Baking Soda Toothpaste

Certain ingredients in toothpaste can further the work of plaque removal by neutralizing the acids bacteria produce. Included in many kinds of toothpaste or available on its own, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is prominent among these. It counteracts acidity and has an abrasive quality that helps rid surfaces of plaque.   

Alongside baking soda, other ingredients in toothpaste can also help. Look out for:

  • Sodium pyrophosphate
  • Triclosan, an antibacterial agent
  • Zinc citrate

Removal of Tartar Buildup

If plaque is allowed to harden and become tartar, only in-office dental cleaning can remove it. Dentists and hygienists accomplish this with a technique called scaling, by which they use tools to physically remove buildups on the teeth.

In cases of advanced gum disease, or periodontitis, tartar can start to form below the gumline or at the roots of teeth. In these cases, scaling may be paired with a more invasive procedure, root planing, which effectively cleans out the pockets surrounding the tooth. You would undergo this while under local anesthetic.   

Though you may purchase dental instruments to remove tartar online, it isn’t a good idea. Doing dental work on your own mouth is difficult and impossible to safely do. There’s a significant risk of damaging the gums or the inside of the mouth. Leave this work to the professionals.


Plaque is a bacteria-rich film that forms on your teeth after you eat and drink. If allowed to build up, it can erode teeth, cause gum disease and cavities, and harden to become a thicker substance called tartar.

Good oral hygiene habits, especially proper brushing and flossing, can remove plaque from teeth; however, tartar can only be taken off with in-office dental cleaning. Managing plaque is a cornerstone of ensuring good oral health.

A Word From Verywell

Though it takes consistent effort to get rid of plaque and keep your smile healthy, it’s worth the effort. Alongside the practical benefits of having healthy, attractive teeth, it can also boost your self-confidence and image. In addition to good oral habits and attention to hygiene, regular dental cleanings and checkups are the best foundation for managing this issue.

If you’re concerned about plaque or tartar in your mouth—or are experiencing any dental issues—be sure to seek out prompt dental care.   


Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should you scrape plaque off your teeth?

    The best way to remove plaque from your teeth on your own is to brush twice a day and to floss daily. These methods are generally sufficient in removing plaque and making sure it isn’t damaging your teeth and gums. Aside from floss, gum massagers, tongue scrapers, and other implements can help, though you should never try to use professional dental tools to work on your own mouth.

  • How do you remove hardened plaque?

    When plaque hardens, it becomes tartar, a thicker buildup on the teeth that’s yellow, white, black, or brown in color. Though practices such as tooth brushing and flossing can remove the former, the latter can only be removed with dental cleaning. Trying to use dental tools at home is unsafe and not recommended.

7 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.
  1. National Institutes of Health: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. The tooth decay process: how to reverse it and avoid a cavity.

  2. Peedikayil F, Sreenivasan P, Narayanan A. Effect of coconut oil in plaque related gingivitis: a preliminary report. Niger Med J. 2015;56(2):143. doi:10.4103/0300-1652.153406

  3. Napitu A, Niles A. Dental plaque: what causes it and how to remove it from your teeth. Dentaly.

  4. American Dental Association. Plaque. Mouth Healthy.

  5. Hill A. Scaling and root planing (procedure, effects, costs & FAQs). NewMouth.

  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Taking care of your teeth.

  7. American Dental Association. 5 steps to a flawless floss. Mouth Healthy.

Additional Reading

By Mark Gurarie
Mark Gurarie is a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct lecturer of writing composition at George Washington University.  

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