Dental plaque is a sticky, soft, and invisible or pale yellow film that is constantly forming on the teeth. It appears as a result of the presence of bacteria, saliva, mucus, and food remains, which, with time, begin to accumulate in the surface of the teeth and under the gums, leading to the film´s formation (1, 2).
How is dental plaque formed?
Clinically speaking, dental plaque develops when food remaining that have a high content of carbohydrates, such as cakes, candy, milk, soft drinks, raisins, etc., which have plenty of sugary and starchy content, are regularly left on the teeth.
Due to the normal presence of bacteria inside the mouth, these begin to feed on food remaining, producing, as a result, the above-mentioned film. At the same time, the plaque-producing bacteria begin to generate harmful acids, which, over time, destroy tooth enamel and produce tooth decay (3).
Normally, dental plaque begins its formation on and around the teeth from about 4 to 12 hours after brushing. For this reason, experts recommend brushing the teeth thoroughly at least twice a day and floss every day.
What is dental tartar?
When residual dental plaque is not satisfactorily removed through proper dental cleaning techniques, it then reacts with the minerals found in the saliva, creating a form of mineralized plaque known as dental tartar, also called dental calculus or teeth tartar. This is a hard, crusty, yellowish or brownish deposit capable of producing severe dental stains and discoloration.
Going from the easiest to remove to the most difficult, the stages of teeth tartar formation include slight, moderate, and heavy dental calculus. Of course, with every stage, dental damage increases, leading to more severe dental complications and more complex techniques and procedures for dental recovery (4, 5).
The main difference between dental plaque and tartar is that the first one can be easily removed by thorough brushing and flossing at home, while dental tartar can only be eliminated by a professional in the dental office with the help of specialized instruments capable of removing the hard formation both above and below the gumline.
In addition, while having a certain degree of dental plaque accumulation can be a risk or a sign for having gum disease or tooth decay, the presence of dental calculus, most of the time, means that there is a moderate to severe affection to both the teeth and its surroundings.
How plaque or tartar are removed from the teeth?
As stated above, practicing proper dental cleaning techniques, such as brushing at least twice a day with a soft, rounded-tip bristled toothbrush and a fluoride-containing toothpaste, flossing between the teeth and rinsing on a daily basis, and going to the dentist for regular check-ups every 6 months can easily avoid the harmful accumulation of dental plaque. Also, maintaining a balanced diet and reducing the number of sugary snacks can help protect the teeth from decay.
As per the dental tartar accumulation, the dentist or dental hygienist will have to use sharp instruments to remove the tartar from the teeth and surroundings. Besides, the teeth´s surface will be smoothed to help prevent plaque or tartar from forming and adhering (3, 4).
What happens when plaque and tartar are not removed from the teeth?
If the toxic build-up is not removed in time with the proper dental techniques, diseases such as periodontal disease can appear, aggravating the whole dental picture. Also known as gum disease, this dental complication affects the periodontal tissues (gums and bone support) surrounding the teeth. It is basically an inflammatory process that can start as a simple gum affection, but can become so severe that it could end up affecting the teeth support, producing its loosening and consequent fall.
Most of the gum disease cases are caused by the continuous build-up of plaque on the teeth, which leads to the formation of gum pockets that fills up with toxic remains, producing the irritation and inflammation of the gums. This stage of periodontal disease is known as gingivitis, a reversible condition that can only be treated by a dental professional.
If the gingivitis is not treated on time, the pockets full of toxic remains continue to grow, affecting all the teeth surrounding even more. The spaces become deeper, accumulating even more bacteria and debilitating the bone root until the tooth loosens. This stage is known as periodontitis, a dental condition that has a more complex treatment, requiring, in some cases, surgical interventions (6, 7).
In addition, recent studies have found a relationship between plaque build-up, periodontal disease, and other diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, and premature birth. However, more information needs to be gathered to give this relationship a better understanding.