Many people ask their dental professional if there’s a difference between plaque and tartar—and it’s a great question. Both plaque and tartar buildup are common dental problems. Significant plaque buildup can result in tooth decay and gum disease. Tartar is calcified plaque, a hard-mineral deposit that forms on teeth A rough, bumpy line at the base of the teeth is one sign. However, tartar also forms below the gum line. Dental hygienists can remove tartar buildup on teeth, and good oral care helps prevent it from returning. Arming yourself with the facts can help you be smarter about how you care for your teeth.
What is tartar?
Even if you take great care of your teeth at home, you still have bacteria in your mouth. They mix with proteins and food byproducts to form a sticky film called plaque. This gunk coats your teeth, gets under your gum line, and sticks to fillings or other dental work. Plaque carries bacteria that can damage tooth enamel and lead to cavities. But if you remove plaque regularly, you can prevent permanent tooth decay and gum disease. Bigger problems arise, however, if plaque stays on your teeth and hardens into tartar. Tartar, sometimes called calculus, is plaque that has hardened on your teeth. Tartar is mostly mineralized dead bacteria, along with a small amount of mineralized proteins from saliva. Chemically, tartar is made of calcium phosphate, calcium carbonate and magnesium phosphate. It can form at and underneath the gum line and can exasperate gum tissues. Tartar gives plaque more surface area on which to grow and a much stickier surface to adhere, which can lead to more serious conditions, such as cavities and gum disease. Not only can tartar threaten the health of your teeth and gums, it is also a cosmetic problem. Because tartar is more porous, it absorbs stains easily. So, if you are a coffee or tea drinker, or if you smoke, it is especially important to prevent tartar buildup. It must be removed with special tools in the dentist’s office.
How does tartar affect teeth and gums?
Tartar can make it difficult to brush and floss like you should. This can lead to cavities and tooth decay.
Any tartar that forms above your gum line could be bad for you. That’s because the bacteria in it can irritate and damage your gums. Over time, this might lead to progressive gum disease. The mildest form of gum disease is called gingivitis. It can usually be stopped and reversed if you brush, floss, use an antiseptic mouthwash, and get regular cleanings from your dentist. If not, it can get worse, to the point where pockets form between the gums and teeth and get infected by bacteria. That’s called periodontitis. Your immune system sends chemicals to fight back and they mix with bacteria and the stuff it puts out. The resulting stew can damage the bones and tissues that hold your teeth in place. Also, some studies link the bacteria in gum disease to heart disease and other health problems.
How do I know if I have tartar buildup?
Unlike plaque, which is a colorless film of bacteria, tartar is a mineral buildup that’s fairly easy to see if above the gum line. Tartar feels like a rough substance in the mouth that brushing alone will not remove. It also irritates the gums, causing inflammation, bleeding and eventually gum disease. When tartar appears below the gum line, it can cause raised swellings that may bleed. Buildup above the gum line is yellow or tan and grows larger if not removed. Below the gum line, it may be brown or black. Only dental professionals can successfully remove tartar buildup on teeth through a process called scaling.
How can I Prevent Tartar Buildup?
Your best bet is not to let tartar form on your teeth. Here’s how:
- Brush regularly, twice a day for two minutes. A 30-second scrub twice a day won’t remove plaque or prevent tartar. Use a brush with soft bristles that is small enough to fit into your mouth and will reach the hard-to-reach surfaces behind your teeth and on your rear molars.
- Choose tartar-control toothpaste with fluoride. Fluoride will help repair enamel damage. Some products have a substance called triclosan that fights the bacteria in plaque.
- Make sure to floss! No matter how good you are with a toothbrush, dental floss is the only way to remove plaque between your teeth and keep tartar out of these hard-to-reach areas.
- Rinse daily. Use an antiseptic mouthwash daily to help kill bacteria that cause plaque.
- Watch your diet. The bacteria in your mouth thrive on sugary and starchy foods. When they’re exposed to those foods, they release harmful acids. Try to eat a healthy diet and limit the amount of sugary foods you eat. Every time you eat, you also feed the bacteria in your mouth. You don’t have to give up sweets completely, just be mindful about how often you indulge. It also helps to brush and drink plenty of water during and after meals.
- Don’t smoke. Studies show that people who smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products are more likely to have tartar.
Once tartar has formed, only a dental professional will be able to remove it from your teeth. So, visit your dentist every six months to remove any plaque and tartar that might have formed and to prevent further problems.
Do you have any questions about tartar? Call Westermeier Martin Dental care to schedule an appointment with your dentist 716-508-4547.