What’s the Difference Between Plaque and Tartar?



What’s the difference between plaque and tartar? Although the words plaque and tartar are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some distinct differences. There are differences in how plaque and tartar form. Health consequences of having plaque and tartar can range from bad breath to a bad heart. 

While the removal of plaque and tartar are different, prevention of both is possible by developing a great oral hygiene regimen.

What’s the Difference Between Plaque and Tartar?

The difference between plaque and tartar is that plaque is a clear sticky residue made up of sugar, saliva and food particles. Tartar is then formed if plaque is not removed and properly taken care of. 

Formation of Plaque and Tartar

Plaque forms on your teeth continuously throughout the day and while you are sleeping.  Several hours after you last brushed, plaque will start to develop on your teeth making them feel dirty or like they have little sweaters on them.

Plaque is a clear sticky residue made up of sugar, saliva and food particles.  Depending on the chemical makeup of your saliva and the porosity of your teeth, plaque may form more quickly.

Your diet can also influence the amount of plaque and tartar that forms in your mouth. Common foods containing starches and sugar contribute to plaque growth. Both plaque and tartar are the byproduct of bacteria that lives in your mouth. The 300 different species of bacteria feed on the sugars we eat and excrete a waste product biofilm we know as plaque.

When plaque is not removed thoroughly and often, it hardens into tartar. Tartar, also referred to as calculus, is the host for entire communities of microorganisms 1/500th the width of a human hair.  As small as they are, these bacteria can cause big problems.

While being hosted by tartar, these living beings grow, eat, reproduce and discharge waste like any other living thing.

Infections Caused by Plaque and Tartar

Bacteria in plaque make acids that wear down enamel and cause dental cavities.  When plaque forms near the gums, it produces toxic products that go into the gum tissue starting the condition of gingivitis.

Gingivitis becomes a serious disease called periodontitis. Periodontitis, or gum disease, is a progressive and non-self-correcting infection that has a negative effect on every major system in your body. In addition to bleeding gums and tooth loss, gum disease is now proven to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, arthritis and some cancers.

Since both dental decay and periodontitis are bacterial infections, they may be contagious. They are both considered infectious diseases. In fact, tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease. Parents and caretakers can transmit oral bacteria from themselves to a baby by simply sharing a spoon.

A simple kiss between spouses can spread 80 million bacteria from one mouth to the other.  While the gum disease itself is caused by an inflammatory reaction to bacteria under the gums, periodontitis as such may not be contagious but the bacteria that cause the inflammatory reaction can be spread through saliva.

Elimination of Plaque and Tartar

Plaque is the consistency of pudding. Brushing your teeth at least twice a day for two minutes is an effective way to remove most of the plaque buildup. A gentle circular movement aiming the bristles toward the gum line is recommended. Scrubbing your teeth is not necessary and will cause damage and sensitivity.

Using an electric toothbrush produces 80 times more plaque busting movements than a regular manual toothbrush.  For this reason, most dentists and dental hygienists recommend an electric toothbrush to their patients.

Replace your toothbrush or brush head every three months for maximum brushing benefits.

Using dental floss disrupts the bacteria to prevent plaque from developing into tartar. Gently scraping the side of each tooth with floss will remove the remaining plaque a toothbrush cannot reach. 

Tartar is old hardened plaque that cannot be removed with a toothbrush or floss at home because it is bonded to the tooth enamel. Your dentist or hygienist will need to use an ultrasonic scaler and hand instruments to remove the tartar cemented on your tooth.

There may be specific areas of tartar build up your dental hygienist can point out to you at your visit. Concentrating on those areas with your homecare will make your professional cleanings easier.

Prevention of Plaque and Tartar

To prevent plaque and tartar, and the health problems associated with plaque and tartar, it is critical to develop and consistently maintain a good oral homecare routine. Brushing and flossing twice a day is the minimum. Adding an alcohol-free antibacterial mouthwash and ADA approved toothpaste will enhance the quality of your homecare.

Avoiding carbohydrates which contain sugar and starches will cut down on the food supply to the plaque-causing bacteria in your mouth. Try replacing carbohydrates with natural plaque fighting foods like cheese, apples and celery.

It is also important to communicate with your dentist or hygienist about creating an individualized recare cycle for you. The professional cleaning and dental exam may be scheduled every three, four or six months based on your unique needs. Keeping these appointments will keep your mouth and your whole body healthy.

In Conclusion

So, what’s the difference between plaque and tartar? The difference between plaque and tartar is that plaque is a clear sticky residue made up of sugar, saliva and food particles. Tartar is then formed if plaque is not removed and properly taken care of. Plaque and tartar can be prevented developing and consistently maintaining a good oral hygiene routine at home. 

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