Plaque and Tartar: What’s the Difference?

July 16, 2019

Woman brushing her teethIf you’re like many of our patients, you may be confused about what the difference is between plaque and tartar. Both are caused by a buildup of bacteria and you don’t want either on your teeth. However, they require different treatments to remove and can lead to serious problems if not taken care of.

Knowing which is which will help you be more aware of what’s going on inside your mouth. And as you keep reading, you’ll realize just how important those twice-a-year checkups are to maintaining a plaque and tartar-free smile.

What is Plaque?

Plaque is present in our mouths every day. It’s that sticky, soft film that coats your teeth throughout the day and that gives you bad breath if you forget to brush one morning. Unfortunately, it’s also an attractive breeding ground for bacteria.

As you eat and drink, plaque builds up and feeds those bacteria, allowing them to multiply. Meals heavy in sugar or carbs are especially to blame. As the bacteria eat the leftovers of what you were just eating, they give off acids that break down your enamel and can cause cavities and gum disease.

Luckily, getting rid of plaque is easy. Just be sure to maintain your daily dental hygiene habits of brushing twice and flossing once per day. You can also chew on sugar-free gum after meals and drink water throughout the day to deter plaque from building up, but be warned these are not substitutes for brushing and flossing!

What is Tartar?

Professional dental cleaning toolsTartar is the result of plaque solidifying on your teeth after neglecting to remove it for too long. This hardened substance is much more difficult to remove than the softer plaque—brushing and flossing just won’t cut it. You’ll have to have tartar buildup removed by a dental professional.

Tartar accumulation is no joke. If left unaddressed, it can lead to:

  • Tooth discoloration
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Gum disease

Brushing and flossing daily can help keep tartar at bay so that the majority of plaque doesn’t stick around for long. However, traces can still remain even with proper care. This is why it’s so crucial you visit your dentist every 6 months so that any tartar that has formed is scraped away.

Don’t Skip Your Yearly Checkups

Although we love seeing and chatting with our patients, we wouldn’t be pushing for biannual visits if they didn’t benefit you. When you come in for a checkup, your dentist will examine your teeth to check for hidden tartar that may have built up. They’ll also be able to assess if you have developed any long term damage to your teeth or gums.

Your hygienist will then perform a professional cleaning to get rid of it—and the process shouldn’t be too unpleasant if you’ve been keeping up with brushing and flossing. Remember, the longer tartar sits around, the more problems it causes. Hopefully this will convince you to never skip a cleaning again!