Understanding the Difference Between ‘Plaque’ and ‘Tartar’

February 18, 2021

Is plaque the same as tartar? What is the difference between plaque and tartar? Dentists use these terms during patient checkups, but they may not always be clear about the differences between them. That could leave you with questions about tartar formation and where plaque comes from. One thing you know for sure is that you should keep the presence of plaque and tartar in your mouth to a minimum. The team at AZ Family Dental has answers to your plaque and tartar questions.

What You Need to Know About Plaque and Tartar

Dentists warn their patients about both plaque and tartar. While these substances have their similarities, they also have differences that you should know about. As you learn about plaque and tartar and how you can prevent them, keep the following information in mind:

  • Everyone is at risk of plaque and tartar buildup: Plaque and tartar can accumulate in anyone’s mouth. They’re a natural part of life and appear as a result of daily functions, like eating. Even if you brush your teeth every day, you can still develop plaque and tartar.
  • Plaque and tartar are preventable: Though anyone can be at risk of plaque and tartar, they’re both preventable. Plaque and tartar do not have to be inevitable, and you can take steps to prevent them from becoming an issue.
  • If you have plaque and tartar, don’t panic: Plaque and tartar do not have to be permanent. You can learn how to spot their formation in your mouth, and if you detect them, you can take steps to get rid of them and prevent them from coming back.

What Is Plaque?

Plaque is a colorless, sticky film that develops on your teeth, especially around the gum line, within a few hours after brushing. Your mouth contains bacteria that feed on sugary and starchy food particles in your mouth. As the bacteria mixes with these particles, it creates a film that covers your teeth. At this point, the bacteria begin consuming the sugar and starch particles. This leads to the release of acids that collect along your gum line. All this plays into the formation and accumulation of plaque.

The plaque itself may look invisible, but the acids produced by the bacteria can cause serious damage to your teeth and gums. The acids attack your tooth enamel (outer layer of the tooth), which can lead to cavities and tooth pain. The acids can also affect your gums and raise your risk of gingivitis. Two symptoms of gingivitis are inflamed gums and bleeding when you brush your teeth. This can be painful and uncomfortable. Left unchecked, it can develop into a more serious issue, periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease involves the deterioration of the hard tissues beneath your gums. Your teeth could start hurting, become loose and even fall out. It’s a serious issue, and it’s one of the final stages of plaque buildup.

Of course, these negative consequences don’t happen overnight. Plaque is a daily development in everyone’s mouths, and regular brushing and flossing can help reduce it. But what comes first, plaque or tartar? Does plaque contribute to the development of tartar? If you neglect daily cleaning of your mouth, plaque can turn into the more dangerous and unpleasant substance of tartar.

What Is Tartar?

Tartar forms when plaque on the surface of your teeth reacts with the minerals in your saliva. This is a process dentists refer to as mineralization. This mineralization becomes a visible and solid buildup of calcified plaque — or tartar. Tartar is yellowish-brown in color, making it more unsightly than the early, visible stages of plaque. But this is not the only difference between tartar and its early counterpart, plaque. Tartar can lead to some serious dental health concerns.

As a hard deposit on your teeth, tartar traps stains beneath it. This can lead to permanent tooth discoloration. It also increases your chance of developing cavities and experiencing tooth pain and sensitivity. Like plaque, tartar can contribute to developing gingivitis and periodontal disease. But unlike plaque, simple brushing and flossing won’t do much to remove tartar. Tartar fuses to the enamel of your teeth, making it a permanent dental issue that only a professional can remove.

The length of time it takes for plaque to turn into tartar differs from person to person. It also depends on the person’s dental hygiene, diet, and health practices. Young people are better able to withstand the development of tartar. As you age, be on the lookout for plaque and tartar buildup. You may have to take extra precautions to keep their development at bay.

How to Prevent Dental Plaque and Tartar Buildup

Plaque and tartar are both preventable. Establishing a preventive routine takes some time, dedication, and practice. With some daily effort, you can prevent the accumulation of plaque and tartar. Here are five ways you can start preventing plaque, tartar, and the negative consequences associated with them.

1. Establish a Dental Hygiene Routine

One of the best things you can do is commit to a daily dental hygiene routine. Failure to do so is one of the leading causes of plaque buildup, which can turn into tartar. Practicing good dental hygiene is within everyone’s control. Make the commitment to take care of your teeth every day, and you’ll be at a lower risk of developing plaque and tartar. Plus, you can have fresher-smelling and better-looking teeth as a result.

Begin by brushing your teeth with plaque and tartar toothpaste at least twice every day. We recommend brushing after you wake up and before going to bed each day. This can be helpful in remembering to brush your teeth since it will become a part of your morning and nighttime routine. Instead of brushing your teeth whenever you feel like it, get into the habit of brushing them after you wake up and when you get ready for bed.

When you get into the good habit of brushing your teeth twice per day, you can further increase your dental hygiene by adding flossing to the routine. This is the best way to clean between your teeth and below your gum line. These areas are the most susceptible to plaque buildup and the contraction of gum diseases. If you floss once a day and brush your teeth every morning and night, you can be well on your way to avoiding plaque and tartar.

2. Use an Electric Toothbrush

Take your dental hygiene routine to the next level by ditching a manual toothbrush for an electric one. Electric toothbrushes cost more than traditional ones, but they offer benefits that make them worth their higher price. Electric toothbrushes use fast vibrations and quick movements to provide powerful cleaning benefits. With them, you can clean and disrupt a higher percentage of plaque from your teeth. Disrupting plaque is one of the simplest ways to keep it from multiplying, and electric brushes go even further.

It all comes down to strokes per minute. Every time you move the bristles of your toothbrush over your teeth, you perform a brushstroke that disrupts plaque. A person might average 300 strokes per minute with a traditional toothbrush. Electric toothbrushes do what no human can do by offering 3,000 strokes to 7,500 strokes per minute. That’s significant bristle action on your teeth to disrupt and remove plaque. Combine that with a plaque-fighting toothpaste, and you’re on your way to a cleaner mouth.

Electric toothbrushes have other benefits in addition to increased strokes per minute. Many include electronic timers to help you reach the recommended two-minute brushing mark. Electric toothbrushes also require less arm movement for you with their electric-powered, moving bristles. Altogether, this can mean less movement for you while achieving more strokes per minute and a longer brushing session than you’d get with your traditional toothbrush.

If you’re used to manual toothbrushes, it may take a little practice to become familiar with how the electric toothbrush works. Its benefits make it worth learning, especially since it does a better job cleaning hard-to-reach places. If you’re not ready to switch to an electric toothbrush, your manual toothbrush can still be effective. Instead of scrubbing your teeth, try using smaller, circular motions, angling the bristles down or up toward the gum line.

3. Monitor Your Diet and Avoid Starchy, Sugary Foods

Your diet affects your risk of developing plaque and tartar. An unhealthy diet increases your risk of plaque and tartar, while a healthy diet reduces your risk. The bacteria in plaque feed on sugars and starches. The more they feed, the more they multiply. And the more they feed, the more acid they produce, which can harm your teeth. When starch mixes with the bacteria, you may even start to see a pale yellow layer forming around your gum line.

There’s a reason dentists tell their patients to eat less candy. Sugar in your mouth is plaque buildup waiting to happen. Try limiting the amount of sugary or starchy foods you eat. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional candy, but consistent sugar intake will increase the formation of plaque in your mouth. Instead, try eating foods that limit the spread of plaque, such as celery, apples, and cheeses.

Specific candies to avoid are hard candies that take a long time to melt in your mouth. Candies like caramels, lollipops and even cough drops contain refined sugars that are detrimental to your teeth. And since they take a while to melt, your teeth stay in contact with these harmful sugars for several minutes. It’s always a good idea to limit your sugar intake, but you should make an extra effort to stay away from hard candies.

Rinsing your mouth with water after eating sugary foods is an easy way to remove some lingering sugar particles to keep away plaque. This can work well until you are able to brush your teeth. Or, you can rinse with mouthwash for some extra cleaning power. Remember that mouthwash should not be a substitute for brushing and flossing, but it can be a beneficial complement to your dental hygiene routine.

4. Visit Your Dentist for a Professional Cleaning

Brushing your teeth at least twice per day is a great way to keep away plaque and tartar. But, no one is perfect. You might miss a few spots once in a while. That’s why you should make it a point to visit your dentist for a professional cleaning. They have the skills and tools to make your mouth cleaner by cleaning those hard-to-reach areas.

You should visit your dentist every six to 12 months for an oral checkup and professional cleaning. You’ll leave the dentist’s office with a cleaner mouth than when you arrived because dentists have plaque and tartar removal tools and toothpaste to help get rid of your plaque buildup. During your appointment, ask your dentist to tell you which areas of your mouth you should give special attention to when brushing and flossing. Use this opportunity to recommit to dental health with renewed determination. Every day is a chance to do the best you can to prevent plaque and tartar.

5. Undergo Tartar Removal Procedures

It can be hard to avoid tartar, especially if you’ve recently committed to enhancing your dental hygiene routine. If you’re experiencing high levels of tartar buildup, you may need your dentist to perform a tartar removal procedure. These can vary in their intensity. Some tartar removal procedures can happen on a regular dental visit, especially if your tartar buildup is minimal. Your dentist can scrape away layers of tartar, being careful not to harm the enamel of your teeth in the process.

Other tartar removal procedures are more intensive. Thick layers of tartar could be difficult to remove. You may have to schedule a special appointment or undergo sedative surgery to receive the proper tartar removal treatment. This should only be necessary under the most extreme circumstances. Ask your dentist to inspect your teeth for tartar buildup. They will be able to recommend the best course of action.

Choose AZ Family Dental to Help Remove and Prevent Plaque and Tartar

When you’re ready to prevent plaque and tartar buildup, AZ Family Dental is here to help you along the way. When you walk into our office, you can trust we will treat you like a member of our own family. We strive to ensure you leave happy with our services and ready to continue your journey of proper dental hygiene.

As a family dentistry practice, you can feel confident bringing the entire family in for treatment. We offer a full range of general dentistry services to meet everyone’s needs, from the youngest child to the oldest adult. Contact us online to schedule an appointment today.

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