Dental plaque and tartar are related, but they are not the same thing. What's the difference and what causes them? Keep reading to find out.
One thing that plaque and tartar (calculus) do have in common is that you don't want them staying on your teeth for long. The good news is that it's quite simple to remove plaque at home with a good oral hygiene routine and perhaps some special tooth plaque removal products. Tartar on teeth, however, will require attention from your dentist.
In this article we explain how plaque builds up on teeth, why you should get rid of it before it hardens to tartar, and the best tools and techniques for removing plaque from teeth. We hope this information helps you understand how to take better care of your teeth and prevent oral health problems in the future.
What is plaque?
Plaque is a sticky coating that builds up on the teeth and around the gums. A technical term for plaque is “dental biofilm”, since it contains live bacteria, as well as saliva. The gluey texture helps the bacteria stick together around your teeth and gums, where they feed on the carbohydrates left behind when you eat and drink.
Without effective plaque removal, the bacteria breed and the biofilm spreads. As the bacteria feed, they produce acids which erode tooth enamel and harden plaque, contributing to a number of dental problems including:
This is why it's important to remove plaque from teeth daily – more on that later.
The video below helps explain plaque to kids, but it's quite interesting for adults, too! You can see the effect of not brushing teeth for two days, and watch the bacteria in plaque moving around under a microscope:
Bacteria will also gather on your tongue, leaving it looking white or feeling furry. Read about how to clean your tongue in our separate guide.
What causes plaque on teeth and how to prevent it
Dental biofilm naturally occurs in our mouths so there's nothing you can do to get rid of it completely or stop it building up every day.
However, the food and drink you consume has a direct effect on the amount of biofilm on your teeth. The bacteria in plaque thrive on carbohydrates (including sugars) – perhaps you've noticed that the sticky film on your teeth is worse after eating sweets, chocolate and other sugary foods.
Regular alcohol consumption also upsets the balance of healthy bacteria in your mouth, according to a study from the Oral Health Foundation.
Reducing your intake of these foods, or at least limiting them to mealtimes rather than snacking throughout the day, can help minimise the amount of plaque on your teeth. Green tea, red wine and cranberry juice can also help reduce plaque buildup on teeth, according to Humana, but they are no substitute for brushing and flossing.
Pregnant women are more likely to develop plaque on their teeth because of hormonal changes in their mouths, so it's important to pay extra attention to oral hygiene during pregnancy.
What does plaque look like?
It's hard to see plaque on teeth because it's almost colourless, sometimes pale yellow. You're more likely to feel it by running your tongue along your teeth or scraping your tooth with a fingernail. If you've just eaten or haven't brushed your teeth for a while, chances are you'll be able to feel the parts of your teeth which are furry and not as smooth as when you've just brushed. That's dental plaque.
If you want to see exactly where you have plaque buildup on your teeth, use a plaque disclosing tablet. This dyes any dental biofilm and shows you where you need to focus your brushing efforts.
Plaque vs tartar
We've explained what plaque is, but what about tartar (also called dental calculus)?
If you don't remove plaque from your teeth properly, it starts to solidify. In just a few hours it can become harder, making it more difficult to brush off. But after several days it absorbs minerals from your saliva and forms a solid substance called tartar. Dental tartar often originates in the gaps between teeth, around the base of teeth, and below the gumline.
Over time, any buildup of tartar on teeth will expand, thicken, and darken in colour. It can start to irritate the gums and will eventually lead to gum disease.
Tartar buildup bonds strongly to teeth and is very hard to remove yourself. If you notice white, yellow, brown or black tartar on your teeth – a hard substance which doesn't come off with normal brushing or flossing – you'll need to visit your dentist for a professional teeth cleaning, known as a scale and polish.
The table below summarises some key differences between plaque and tartar:
Tartar / Calculus
How quickly does it form?
A few hours after brushing, or straight after eating
Plaque hardens into tartar after several days
Hard mineral buildup
Colourless or pale yellow, hard to see
Noticeable white, yellow, brown or black substance stuck to teeth
Thorough brushing and flossing removes most plaque; regular dental visits advised
Requires professional cleaning at the dentist (scale and polish)
Hardens into tartar
Expands to cover teeth, contributes to decay, gum disease and more
How to remove plaque from teeth
The good news is that the best way to remove plaque on a daily basis is simply by brushing your teeth thoroughly and flossing or using interproximal brushes. But, you do need to make sure you're using the correct brushing technique and spending enough time on keeping your teeth clean, morning and night.
Some people find that an electric toothbrush provides more effective dental plaque removal than a manual toothbrush. However, brushing alone isn't effective at removing plaque from between the teeth, which is why daily flossing is important. If you don't like using regular string floss, an oral irrigator (water flosser) could be a good investment.
Here are some basic steps for removing plaque on teeth before it turns to calculus:
- Brush twice a day – once before bed and one other time – for at least two minutes
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and avoid using too much pressure
- Angle the brush at 45 degrees to the tooth to reach below the gumline
- Concentrate on brushing every surface of every tooth
- Floss between teeth before or after brushing
- Don't rinse with water or mouthwash immediately after brushing, because this washes away the ingredients in your toothpaste.
For more information on how to remove plaque at home with a good oral hygiene routine, we have a separate guide which explains how to clean your teeth properly.
Dental biofilm cannot be removed simply by rinsing with water, although rinsing after you eat can help wash away some of the sugars and acids left behind. You may also use a fluoride mouthwash or chew sugar-free gum to help keep your teeth clean between brushing.
The best way to beat plaque buildup is with a professional dental cleaning. I would recommend having your teeth cleaned at least once every six months. Depending on your history and susceptibility to disease, however, cleanings might need to be done more frequently. Plaque buildup can lead to unhealthy gums and tooth decay, but regular cleanings will keep plaque at bay.
Most routine dental cleanings only take about 30 minutes, and include scaling and polishing to make sure all plaque is removed and you leave with a fresh, clean smile.
Dr. Ashley Niles, Niles Family Dentistry
Plaque removal tools
If you look online, you'll find a variety of plaque scrapers, plaque removal kits, and even electric plaque removers available to buy. These are generally marketed at people who have tartar on their teeth and want to remove it without visiting the dentist.
We don't recommend using these dental tools to remove plaque at home. Why? Firstly, as we've already mentioned, all that's needed to remove dental biofilm is daily brushing and flossing. Secondly, if you've got hardened calculus on your teeth, only a dental professional can ensure it's removed safely and completely.
Trying to use specialist dental tools on your own teeth puts you at risk of damaging your teeth and gums. Plus, you'll find it very hard to remove tartar from the back of your teeth and other areas you can't see.
What's the best toothpaste to remove plaque?
If you are brushing correctly and using floss to clean between your teeth, this should be enough to keep tooth plaque at bay regardless of the toothpaste you use. However, there are certain toothpaste ingredients which can help neutralise acid in your mouth, so you could look for a plaque removal toothpaste or tartar control toothpaste containing one or more of these:
- Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate): The alkalinity of baking soda helps balance out the acidity of dental biofilm. Its abrasiveness can also help get plaque off teeth. Corsodyl Original is one popular toothpaste that uses this ingredient to fight gum disease.
- Sodium pyrophosphate: Regular use of a toothpaste containing this ingredient can hinder plaque formation.
- Triclosan: This antibacterial agent fights the bacteria that live in biofilm on your teeth.
- Zinc citrate: This ingredient has been proven to reduce the viability of plaque bacteria for up to 12 hours after brushing.
There are many plaque-fighting and tartar control toothpastes available, so the best toothpaste for plaque in your case may come down to personal preference and taste. For more information about choosing a good toothpaste, as well as product suggestions, check out the best toothpastes for adults and the best baby and kids' toothpastes.
Can you get plaque removal mouthwash
Mouthwash can contain certain ingredients which help reduce bacteria and protect teeth, in particular fluoride and cetylpyridinium chloride. However, using mouthwash in itself isn't a very effective way of removing plaque, and it certainly shouldn't replace brushing and flossing.
There are also mouthwashes with natural ingredients on the market that claim to help with plaque removal. Our best mouthwash guide has more information on choosing a mouthwash to suit you – and how to use it correctly.
How to remove hard plaque
Hardened tooth plaque, known as tartar or calculus, can only be removed by a dentist or hygienist. The dental procedure, called tooth scaling, uses specialist tools to dislodge the cement-like substance that's stuck to your teeth.
This procedure is available on the NHS, provided your dentists says it is necessary.
How to remove plaque from dentures
The Oral Health Foundation advises brushing and soaking your dentures daily to keep them clean. Special denture cleaning tablets like Steradent help remove bacteria and keep dentures feeling smooth and clean. However, plaque can build up on dentures – just as it does on natural teeth – if they are not cleaned properly.
Read our dentures article for detailed information on how to clean dentures, including some natural methods.
Unfortunately there is no way to get rid of plaque permanently. It's always forming in your mouth because of the microbes naturally present there, although foods high in sugar and other carbohydrates can make it accumulate faster.
It's important to practice good oral hygiene daily to remove plaque, otherwise it can harden into tartar, which can only be removed by a dental professional. Leaving dental biofilm or tartar on teeth contributes to decay, gum disease and bad breath.
Brush twice daily and floss once a day to minimise plaque buildup on your teeth. Also have regular dental checkups so your dentist can catch any problems early and show you which areas to work on.
Oral Health Foundation: How your favourite tipple could be changing the bacteria in your mouth… and it’s not good news. Consulted 31st August.
GOSH: Tooth plaque. Consulted 31st August.
Humana: How to reduce dental plaque. Consulted 31st August.
ScienceDirect: Effect of baking soda in dentifrices on plaque removal. Consulted 31st August.
NCBI: The effect of a toothpaste containing 2% zinc citrate and 0.3% Triclosan on bacterial viability and plaque growth in vivo compared to a toothpaste containing 0.3% Triclosan and 2% copolymer. Consulted 31st August.