The Difference Between Plaque & Tartar

Buildup of plaque and tartar may keep teeth from looking their whitest.
Buildup of plaque and tartar may keep teeth from looking their whitest. (Image: Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

A healthy smile is more than just pearly white teeth. The things that cannot be easily seen may cause the most problems when it comes to oral health. Measures need to be taken to minimize plaque and tartar, as they not only diminish the appearance of teeth, but also affect the health of teeth and gums.


Bacteria can be found in the mouth at almost any given time. Other substances are introduced into the oral environment as we eat and drink. Bacteria and sugars travel throughout the mouth via saliva and settle on the surface of teeth. The bacteria and sugars form plaque, a transparent film that adheres to the tooth surface and along the gumline. If not thoroughly removed, plaque may cause cavities, gingivitis and/or periodontal disease.


Tartar, also known as calculus, is plaque that has not been properly removed and has hardened onto the surface of the tooth. Unlike plaque, tartar is visible. It is a yellow or yellowish brown deposit that encrusts the tooth along the gumline. It is much stronger than plaque and is difficult to remove; brushing and flossing will not remove tartar. Tartar must be removed by a dental professional. Tartar can be found both above and below the gumline, and if left untreated, it may cause cavities, gum disease and even tooth loss. Tartar deposits will continue to calcify and grow if not removed.


Treatment for plaque is daily brushing and flossing. Tartar is removed through a process called scaling, where a metal hook is used to safely pull tartar buildup from the tooth surface. Scaling must be performed by a dental professional. Tartar may also form below the gumline. If tartar is detected below the gumline, removal may involve surgery.


Plaque can be removed from the tooth surface by brushing with a toothbrush and toothpaste. New plaque will form and be deposited on teeth soon after brushing, so brushing a minimum of twice a day is recommended to keep plaque at bay. Removal of plaque along the gumline may be accomplished through daily flossing. Routine brushing can greatly reduce the chances of experiencing tartar buildup. Use of tartar control toothpaste may also help.

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