While most people confuse plaque with tartar, understanding the difference between the two conditions can help you take charge of your oral hygiene. Our work at The Downey Dentist has always involved offering quality oral and dental care services to residents of Downey, CA. You and your family can count on us to cover all of your dental needs. This article helps answer the various questions you may have regarding plaque and tartar.

Definitions of Plaque and Tartar

Plaque forms on the teeth or along the gum line as a sticky and colorless film comprising of bacteria. Tartar, also known as calculus, is a rough and porous substance that forms above and below the gum line. Dental plaque may develop as a result of bacteria mixing with food byproducts and proteins in your mouth. Calculus, on the other hand, develops when plaque stays on your teeth and hardens further.

Dental plaque carries bacteria, which produce various acids responsible for attacking your enamel and damaging your gums. Besides causing tartar buildup, bacteria deposits from dental plaque result in gum disease and tooth decay. As plaque continues to occupy your teeth, minerals extracted from your saliva mix with the film making it harden. It may take twenty-four (24) to seventy-two (72) hours for the colorless film to harden to form tartar.

Tartar is defined as a brown or yellow substance formed as a result of plaque hardening on the teeth. This substance is firmly bonded to your enamel and can be challenging to remove through regular flossing or brushing. It can quickly form on teeth of people with a dry mouth, braces, or crowded teeth. Older people and cigarette smokers are also at a higher risk of having tartar buildup.

What are the Likely Causes of Plaque and Tartar?

Since plaque tends to hide under your gum line and between the teeth, it may be difficult to avoid it entirely. As it develops, dental plaque may be colorless or pale yellow in color. The substance also forms in hard-to-see areas of your teeth. Your vulnerability to the buildup of this substance depends on your dental hygiene.

Small portions of the foods you drink or eat remain in your mouth after you’re done eating. Bacteria in the mouth highly thrive on the foods (such as carbohydrates and sugars) you eat. A combination of bacteria and foods that remain in the mouth produces acids, which can attack the surface of your teeth. Furthermore, plaque may develop if you fail to floss or brush your teeth properly.

While flossing seems like a time-consuming and tiring procedure, it helps remove food particles that your toothbrush can’t reach. The moment you fail to floss your teeth, these particles may form a suitable breeding ground for different kinds of bacteria, the accumulation of which leads to plaque buildup.

As tartar develops, it gives plaque adequate surface area to stick and grow. The consumption of more sugary foods or carbohydrates may increase the likelihood of plaque developing on your teeth. Monitoring your food intake can help your overall health, including your oral health. The more you take non-healthy treats such as cookie treats and candy bars, the more your teeth attract bacteria.

Tartar may infect your gums and teeth when you don’t visit a dentist or dental hygienist for a regular checkup. A disease affecting the gums and teeth may grow further to the bone and gum tissue supporting your teeth. Your toothbrush should have round, soft bristles to gently help remove plaque buildup. A bad toothbrush may not reach parts of your teeth that are susceptible to plaque.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Plaque and Tartar?

Plaque develops due to the constant growth of bacteria in the mouth. While the bacteria is not easy to see, it can cause irritation and inflammation to your gums. You are also likely to suffer gingivitis (which is characterized by swollen bleeding gums). Periodontal disease may develop due to a chronic form of gingivitis. In this case, failing to seek treatment for gingivitis could lead to tooth loss.

Periodontitis forms due to the accumulation of bacteria along your gum line and the pockets of your teeth, it is a condition characterized by persistent bleeding or red and swollen gums. You may notice the pocketing around your teeth becoming loose and a sudden change of breath.

The main difference between plaque and tartar is that plaque can be invisible while tartar is easy to see if it grows above your gum line. You may notice the tartar buildup as a brown or yellow deposit at your gum line or between your lower front teeth. Unlike plaque, which is removable by flossing or proper brushing of teeth, tartar requires professional cleaning. Visiting a dental hygienist or dentist for the service is a wise idea.

Preventive Measures for Plaque and Tartar Buildup

Following a strict dental hygiene plan can prevent plaque from building up on your teeth. Most of the procedures on the program can be conducted at home while others require expert assistance. The various preventive measures for plaque buildup are as follows:

  • Brushing your teeth more than twice every day for two (2) minutes to remove any plaque on the tooth surface
  • Flossing daily to eliminate plaque from under the gum line or between your teeth, where the toothbrush can’t reach
  • Limiting the intake of starchy or sugary foods including sticky snacks
  • Scheduling more than two (2) dental visits for dental examinations and professional cleanings every year

Both plaque and tartar buildup can be prevented by proper brushing and flossing. Consider investing in a tartar control toothpaste for the best results. Once tartar forms on your teeth, only a dental hygienist or dentist can professionally remove it.

What Do the Treatment Procedures for Removing Plaque and Tartar Involve?

Dentists and dental hygienists use an approach known as scaling to remove tartar. Scaling involves the use of special instruments including curettes and hand and ultrasonic scalers. This approach helps remove both plaque and tartar developing on your teeth or above and below your gum line. The various treatment procedures for plaque and tartar are as follows:


According to the ADA (American Dental Association), debridement is the removal of plaque lying above or below your gums. Though this process takes longer to complete, it allows a dentist to have a complete view of your tooth set. Ultrasonic vibrations are used to break up the calculus on your teeth and remove any food debris and plaque. Debridement helps prepare you for deep teeth cleaning appointment with a professional.

Dental Cleaning

Dental cleaning (technically known as prophylaxis) is a preventive treatment aimed at removing plaque and preventing cavities. The procedure, which is carried out by a dentist, also helps remove food particles and other buildup substances. Dental hygienists and dentists recommend regular tooth brushing together with a dental cleaning to fight dental plaque. A dental prophylaxis is less time consuming and helps improve your oral health.

You’ll need to schedule a dental examination before having your teeth cleaned by a professional. During the exam, expect the dentist to assess the health of your enamel and check for any signs of plaque or cavities. The expert may use an x-ray machine to view the root of your teeth and other out-of-sight parts. Once the dental exam is complete, the dentist will recommend further treatments if necessary.

Related Conditions

Since proper treatment is essential in the removal of plaque and tartar buildup, failing to seek treatment may expose you to a variety of tooth conditions. They include tooth loss, gum disease, and cavities. Dental plaque bacteria can also trigger blood clots in your gums.

Blood Clots

Bacteria from plaque build up can escape into your bloodstream and cause significant blood clots. The blood clots may result in an infection in the inner lining of your heart. Your heart valves can be damaged or destroyed in the process exposing you to life-threatening complications.

Tooth Loss

While tooth loss may be a normal process in toddlers and older people, it may be caused triggered by tartar buildup. Tartar buildup on your gum line can weaken your teeth and make them loose. When you fail to seek treatment for the tartar buildup and weak gums, your teeth will start falling out, resulting in tooth loss.


A cavity is characterized by a hole that grows deeper and bigger over time. Your tooth may develop a hole once plaque buildup transitions to tartar. Symptoms of a cavity include spontaneous pain when drinking or eating something and visible pits or holes in the teeth. A professional dental care service can help treat the cavity.

Find all-round Dental Care Services From a Dentist Near Me

Part of your dental hygiene practices should include measures for preventing the buildup of plaque and tartar on your teeth. At The Downey Dentist, we provide our patients with appropriate dental care services for their tooth-related ailments. Reach out to our competent dentists for an appointment by calling 562-746-0350 today.

We have other convenient locations near you: Los Angeles Dentist, Lomita Dentist, Carson Dentist, Hawthorne Dentist