dental library


What is plaque?

Dental plaque is a sticky film that adheres to teeth. It consists of food debris, saliva, and dead cells. Some types of plaque cause tooth decay. Other types of plaque cause gum disease. Plaque builds up on the tooth surface and gum line every day. If plaque is not removed, it can harden and form tartar (calculus).

What is tartar?

Dental tartar (calculus) is essentially solidified plaque. It is a hard, stone-like material, usually creamy yellow to black in color. Dental tartar cannot be removed by regular brushing. Tartar removal should be performed by your dentist or dental hygienist.

How is plaque and tartar removed by my dentist or dental hygienist?

Your dentist or dental hygienist will perform a regular or deep cleaning to remove plaque and tartar. The amount of plaque and tartar buildup determines whether a regular or deep cleaning is required to effectively clean your teeth.

A regular cleaning (prophylaxis) involves scaling and polishing procedures that remove plaque, tartar (calculus), and stains from the exposed areas of teeth. The scaling process scrapes away bacterial plaque and tartar from the tooth. In a regular cleaning, scaling is performed on the part of the tooth that is exposed above the gum line.

A deep cleaning is a periodontic procedure used to treat early-stage periodontal (gum) disease. The dentist, periodontist (gum specialist), or dental hygienist removes the plaque through a deep-cleaning method that combines scaling and root planing. Scaling is performed above and below the gum line to remove plaque and tartar. Root planing gets rid of rough spots on the tooth where germs gather, and helps remove bacteria that contribute to gum disease.

What happens if plaque and tartar is not removed?

If plaque and tartar buildup is not addressed, you may develop periodontal (gum) disease. Red, puffy or bleeding gums can be the first signs of gum disease. If gum disease is not treated, the tissues holding the teeth in place are destroyed and the teeth are eventually lost.

How do I reduce plaque and tartar in my mouth?

Here are some things you can do to reduce plaque buildup and the formation of tartar:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day (with a fluoride toothpaste)
  • Floss every day
  • Visit the dentist routinely for a check-up and professional cleaning
  • Eat a well balanced diet
  • Don't use tobacco products


2003. All Rights Reserved. Last Reviewed August 2005

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