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Dental Plaque and Tartar: Causes, Prevention, and Removal

What Is Dental Plaque?

Have you ever wondered what the plaque on your teeth actually is? Dental plaque, also known as tooth plaque, microbial plaque and dental biofilm, is a soft, sticky film that builds up on your teeth. Plaque is an extremely sticky, colorless to pale yellow deposit of biofilm that regularly forms on your teeth. When saliva, food, and fluids combine they produce bacteria deposits, which collect where the teeth and gums meet. Plaque contains bacteria, which produce acids that attack your tooth enamel and can damage your gums. If not treated, the damage could become permanent.  It contains millions of bacteria that feed on the food and drinks you eat every day. If bacteria deposits from plaque on teeth aren’t removed through regular brushing and flossing, they can cause tooth decay, gum disease, and tartar buildup.

Dental Plaque Leads to Tartar Buildup

Over time, if plaque isn’t removed on a regular basis, minerals from your saliva are deposited into the plaque biofilm causing it to harden within 24 to 72 hours, turning into tartar. And while you can remove plaque at home, tartar removal requires the help of a dental professional.

Did you know 68% of adults have tartar? Tartar, also called dental calculus, is a yellow or brown colored deposit that forms when plaque hardens on your teeth. Because tartar buildup on teeth is strongly bonded to the tooth enamel, it can only be removed by a dental professional. You have a greater risk of developing tartar with braces, dry mouth, crowded teeth, smoking and aging. Individuals vary greatly in their susceptibility to tartar buildup. For many, these deposits build up faster with age.

What Causes Dental Plaque and Tartar?

When saliva, food, and fluids combine in your mouth they produce an environment that allows the bacteria to grow and deposit which collect on teeth and gums and especially where the teeth and gums meet. Common foods that contribute to plaque formation and growth include those containing carbohydrates, or simple sugars, such as sucrose and starches, found in soft drinks and candy.

Eating foods high in sugar like cakes, sweets, and fruit can cause an increase in plaque bacteria. Plaque bacteria can lead to gingivitis, caries and advanced gum disease, so it is important to take steps for treatment and prevention.

Plaque hides between teeth and under the gum line. There’s no way to avoid it entirely so it’s important to maintain a good oral routine to keep it from accumulating.

Certain foods, especially carbohydrates (foods containing sugars or starches), are big contributors to plaque growth such as milk, soft drinks, cake, and candy.

Why is it important to prevent dental calculus buildup?

The surface of tartar is rough and makes it difficult to remove plaque with a toothbrush and floss. Tartar is unsightly – it can be yellow or even brown as stains accumulate. In addition, since it attracts plaque and makes cleaning at home difficult, it can contribute to tooth decay, bad breath and serious forms of gum disease.

Stages of teeth tartar formation

  • Slight Dental Calculus
  • Moderate Dental Calculus
  • Heavy Dental Calculus
  • Heavy Dental Calculus

Spotting the Early Signs of Plaque On Teeth

Plaque can be a pale yellow color, but it can also be colorless making it difficult to see. That’s why it’s important to maintain good oral hygiene and see your dental professional every 6 months for a checkup. They may use dental mirrors to spot plaque in hard to see places, and scrape the plaque between your teeth with a dental scaler. Every set of teeth is unique, so ask your dentist for brushing and flossing tips to help address plaque buildup.

If you want to know whether you’re removing plaque properly from home, try staining it using plaque disclosing tablets, available at your local drug store. By staining and exposing plaque, it’s easy to tell where you may need to do a better job of brushing and flossing so you can effectively remove plaque at home. The tablets’ stains can easily be brushed away.

Conditions Related to Dental Plaque and Tartar

So why is plaque a problem? If you don’t take the steps needed to prevent and get rid of plaque, it may lead to:

  • Cavities: the acids produced by the bacteria in plaque can cause low pH level and can eat away at your tooth enamel.
  • Gingivitis: Accumulation of plaque bacteria can cause inflammation of the gums.
  • Bad Breath: Plaque buildup from poor dental hygiene can also cause your breath to smell bad.

The best ways to remove plaque

The easiest way to remove plaque is to brush your teeth at least twice per day. You should use a soft toothbrush that you replace at least every three to four months, when the bristles begin to fray. You could also consider using an electric toothbrush, which can be more effective at removing plaque than a traditional toothbrush.

Floss before you brush to loosen any bits of food so you can brush them away. To floss your teeth:

  • Take about 18 inches of floss, wrapping one end around each of your middle fingers.
  • Hold the floss taut between your thumbs and forefingers, then gently push the floss between two teeth.
  • Move the floss into a “C” shape on the side of one tooth.
  • Rub the floss up and down gently, continuing to press it against your tooth. Be careful not to jerk or snap the floss.
  • Repeat this process for all of your teeth, taking care to floss behind your back teeth as well.

After you’ve flossed, you should spend two minutes brushing your teeth each time. To brush your teeth:

  • Put a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your toothbrush. For children, the amount of toothpaste should be about the size of a grain of rice.
  • Hold your toothbrush on your teeth at a 45-degree angle to your gums.
  • Move your toothbrush back and forth in short, gentle strokes the same width as each of your teeth.
  • Brush all the outside surfaces, inside surfaces, and chewing surfaces of your teeth, and don’t forget your tongue.
  • For the inside of your front teeth, tilt your toothbrush vertically and make small up-and-down strokes.

Unfortunately, plaque accumulates again quickly after being brushed away. Some experts recommend other at-home treatments to remove plaque buildup. These include oil pulling and baking soda treatments.

Oil pulling

Swishing oil — usually coconut or olive oil — around in your mouth may strengthen your teeth, prevent tooth decay, soothe sore gums, and remove plaque.

To perform an “oil pull,” you swish about one tablespoon of coconut or olive oil around in your mouth for 20 to 30 minutes (much longer than you’d swish around typical mouthwash). Coconut oil is believed to be particularly beneficial because it contains fatty acids such as lauric acid, a substance with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects.

Baking soda

Researchers Trusted Source have found that people who brushed their teeth with toothpaste containing baking soda removed more plaque and had less plaque grow back over 24 hours than people who brushed their teeth with toothpaste that did not contain baking soda.

Baking soda is effective at removing plaque because it’s a natural cleanser and an abrasive, meaning it’s good for scrubbing.

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