Difference Between Plaque and Tartar – Symptoms, Cause, Treatment & Prevention

The two most common oral health care problems today are plaque and tartar. We use these two terms simultaneously, but there is a significant difference between plaque and tartar.

In this article, we will come to know about plaque and tartar in details such as signs and symptoms, cause, prevention, treatment and associated problems. (1)


Plaque vs tartar

Plaque is a sticky colorless substance that covers the tooth around the gums. Plaque is capable of causing cavities because it contains acid and also it can cause periodontal diseases.

Plaque can eventually harden and forms tartar also known as calculus. So, in simple words calcified or hardened plaque is called tartar or calculus in dental terminology.

Tartar is yellow to brownish color, unlike plaque which is colorless.  If tartar is not removed, it will calcify even more and can damage the gums. It causes attachment loss and tooth mobility in the future.

Signs and symptoms of plaque and tartar

Everyone develops dental plaque every passing second from the time that we keep our brush back in the rack after brushing. A film of dental plaque continually forms on our tooth surfaces.

If this dental plaque is not removed from around the tooth after a fixed duration of time, i.e. 12 hours, it accumulates and becomes the house for growing bacteria.

This, in turn, causes gum and periodontal infections. Induced diseases are known as gingivitis and periodontitis. (2)

Signs to look for when dental plaque become harmful

  • Bleeding gums
  • Swollen gums
  • pus coming out from the gums
  • Rotation of teeth in the socket
  • Mobility in teeth
  • Bad breath
  • Tooth loss

Unlike dental plaque, tartar is just a mineral build-up of calcium over and above the line of gingiva or gums.

Calculus is brown hard cast like structures over the tooth which begins as yellow stains and the dentist like to call it deposits. The only way for Tatar removal is by a dental hygienist or a dentist by professional scaling which is also cleaning of teeth.

Causes of dental plaque and tartar

As we have already discussed plaque is an accumulation of bacteria as a slimy clear film on the tooth, and plaque left for a long time will convert into tartar by mineral hardening.

Some primary causes of accumulation of plaque on teeth are

Insufficient and improper brushing

If we do not brush after every 12 hours that is twice in a day, then there will be an unwanted accumulation of dental plaque over the tooth surfaces. This is potentially damaging for the teeth because plaque is acidic and causes cavitation of teeth or tooth decay.

Consumption of high sugar containing and carbohydrate-rich foods

If we consume sticky foods rich in sugar and carbohydrate and do not brush our teeth properly after consumption of these substances, they will keep releasing acid in the mouth.

These acids will facilitate cavitation of teeth and excessive dental plaque formation. This runs as a vicious cycle as one factor promotes the increase of the other factor and ultimately results in tooth decay and gum inflammation.

Not using dental aids for oral hygiene

By dental aid, we mean floss, interdental brushes, and mouthwash.  Maintaining good oral health is very cheap, but it should be done methodically with the use of proper instruments.

A thick bristle toothbrush which is not too harsh on your gums, a mouthwash containing antibacterial agents, regular dental floss and interdental brushes advised to you by your dentist are all valuable aids to maintain good oral hygiene and prevent the formation of dental plaque.

Treatment of dental plaque and tartar

Conventional therapy

The process of removing plaque is simple as normal brushing is enough. Eliminating tartar is a tricky business and is known as scaling by dentists.

The scaling is done by a registered dentist or a dental hygienist using individual instruments which are either hand scalers or ultrasonic scalers.

Scaling removes the tartar almost entirely, be it above the gums or below the gums.  Scaling should be repeated every 2 to 3 months or even before, as suggested by your dentist depending upon the progression and severity of your condition.

Long-term riddance
For long-term prevention of tartar buildup, you have to maintain good oral hygiene and eat healthy as much as possible. But as soon as you notice a bad odor coming from your mouth, consult a dentist immediately and get an appointment for scaling.

Prevention of dental plaque and tartar

If the dental plaque does not form, then it automatically avoids the possibility of tartar. Tartar is an aggravated version of dental plaque. The primary methods of prevention are –

Regular brushing and flossing

By regular brushing we mean, brushing twice a day and also after consumption of sticky and sweet food. We can prevent plaque buildup by continually keeping our oral cavity clean.

Floss daily

Flossing is a straightforward procedure which keeps interdental plug, i.e. plaque between our teeth, away. I will explain concisely how to use floss.

  • Tie two ends of dental floss between the index fingers and middle fingers of both the hands and twist it 2 to 3 times to get a desirable length of the floss.
  • Place the floss thread between two teeth and move it back and forth from the top down without hurting the gums.
  • Repeat two to three times until you get desirable results. You should be able to clear off all the debris from in between teeth.

The process of flossing will reach up to the plaque in between the two teeth where regular brushing often misses.

Using an electric toothbrush

An electric toothbrush is a very efficient instrument and a lazy man’s aid to maintaining good oral hygiene in less time and with more efficiency. You have to turn it on and place the brush bristles over your teeth, and the brush will do the job on its own.

For patients undergoing orthodontic treatment, the magnetic brush is not advisable. A special orthodontic brush is available which is available at any drug store.

Maintaining hygiene of the oral aids

The oral aids that we use for maintaining oral health should be kept in a dry and clean place. They should not get infected in any way since they go into our mouth.

Dipping your regular brush in mouthwash or a disinfectant solution used intraorally is advisable after or before every use. A fresh floss thread should be used every time while closing the lid of the floss container.

Most of the electric brush comes with a specialized equipment for cleaning. Read the instructions on the brush for using and cleaning them efficiently. (3)

Healthy eating

Eating fiber-rich foods and avoiding intermediate snacking between two meals is advised by all health practitioners. Not only does it maintain good oral hygiene but also the overall health of our body.

Using a mouthwash

Rinsing your mouth with water every time after brushing may not be sufficient. We need to incorporate mouthwash in our oral health regime every day.

A mouthwash rich in minerals and fluoride is preferred.  If you are suffering from gum diseases, 0.2% chlorhexidine mouthwash is generally advised by dentists.

Using toothpaste

Fluoride forms the significant part of a healthy tooth structure and specific studies have been proven to reduce the incidence of dental plaque. Using a toothpaste containing fluoride is advised by most dentists.


Related conditions

In almost every case, dental plaque triggers tartar and tartar triggers several gum diseases associated with the gums and periodontal tissue.

  • Plaque can directly increase the incidence of dental caries or dental cavities because it is acidic.
  • Tartar creates a pressure on the gums as it builds upon the gums directly sometimes it extends even under the gums which are known as subgingival calculus. This is a somewhat tricky condition for the dentist to correct and requires good patient compliance even after the therapy.
  • If left untreated this stub gingival black will further cause attachment loss of the gums from a tooth which will lead to mobility of the tooth in the socket and in due course of time the teeth will fall off.
  • Many studies show that increased incidence of dental plaque and tartar can be associated with a generalized pathology of the body known as diabetes mellitus the role of diabetes mellitus in dental plaque and vice versa is like a cycle.
  • Increase in severity of one will lead to the rise of the severity of the other. Some studies have shown that dental plaque bacteria can also trigger blood clots. But this is a somewhat rare condition although fatal.

Over to you on dental plaque and tartar

Dental plaque seems to be a potentially simple thing as soon as it is cleaned within a duration of 12 to 24 hours. But plaque buildup can be detrimental to our teeth and gums since it converts into tartar or calculus.

Tartar is a very curable condition and it should not be ignored. Scaling is a least expensive procedure for oral hygiene maintenance which completely removes tartar and reduces the incidence of plaque formation.

Hence, regular scaling and dental checkup is the best way to keep plaque and tartar aside for good.


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