What’s The Difference Between Plaque And Tartar?

In the world of dental hygiene, it’s important to understand the distinction between plaque and tartar. Plaque is a sticky film that continuously forms on your teeth, harboring bacteria that can lead to cavities and gum disease. On the other hand, tartar is the hardened form of plaque that can only be removed by a dental professional. While both plaque and tartar are detrimental to your oral health, knowing their differences can help you take preventative measures to protect your smile.

Definition of Plaque and Tartar


Plaque is a sticky, colorless film that constantly forms on your teeth. It is made up of bacteria, saliva, and food particles. Plaque is the main culprit behind tooth decay and gum disease, as the bacteria in plaque produce acids that attack the tooth enamel and irritate the gums.


Tartar, also known as dental calculus, is a hardened form of plaque that has mineralized over time. It is a yellow or brownish deposit that forms on the teeth and below the gum line. Tartar is much harder than plaque and cannot be removed by brushing and flossing alone. It requires professional dental cleaning to be removed.

Formation of Plaque and Tartar

Formation of Plaque

Plaque forms whenever bacteria in the mouth mix with saliva and food particles. When you eat or drink sugary or starchy foods, the bacteria in your mouth produce acids that attack the enamel on your teeth. Over time, this can lead to tooth decay and cavities. If plaque is not removed by Regular brushing and flossing, it can harden and turn into tartar.

Formation of Tartar

When plaque is allowed to remain on the teeth for an extended period, it can mineralize and harden into tartar. This process usually takes several days or weeks. Tartar is formed when the minerals in saliva, such as calcium and phosphate, combine with the bacteria and food particles in plaque. Once tartar forms, it bonds tightly to the tooth surface, making it difficult to remove without professional dental intervention.

Composition of Plaque and Tartar

Composition of Plaque

Plaque is primarily composed of bacteria, saliva, and food particles. The bacteria in plaque produce acid as they feed on the sugars and carbohydrates from the food we consume. This acid attacks the tooth enamel and can lead to dental cavities and gum disease if not removed.

Composition of Tartar

Tartar is composed of the same bacteria, saliva, and food particles as plaque, but with the addition of minerals from saliva. The minerals, especially calcium and phosphate, combine with the plaque over time, leading to mineralization and hardening of the plaque. As tartar forms, it becomes more porous, allowing more plaque to accumulate on its surface.

Color and Appearance of Plaque and Tartar

Color of Plaque

Plaque is colorless when it first forms on the teeth. However, if plaque is not removed and allowed to accumulate, it can take on a yellowish or brownish color due to the bacteria and food particles it contains.

Appearance of Plaque

Plaque appears as a sticky, soft film on the teeth and along the gum line. It is often difficult to see with the naked eye, which is why regular dental check-ups are essential for early detection and prevention.

Color of Tartar

Tartar can range in color from yellow to brown or even black. The color can vary depending on factors such as the person’s oral hygiene habits, diet, and tobacco use.

Appearance of Tartar

Tartar appears as a hard, crusty deposit on the teeth, especially near the gum line. It can accumulate both above and below the gum line, causing the gums to appear red, swollen, and inflamed. Tartar may also make the teeth appear more yellow or stained.

Location of Plaque and Tartar

Location of Plaque

Plaque can accumulate on any surface of the teeth, but it is most commonly found along the gum line and in the spaces between teeth. These areas are often difficult to reach with a toothbrush, making them more susceptible to plaque buildup.

Location of Tartar

Tartar commonly forms along the gum line, where plaque tends to accumulate and harden. It can also develop on the surfaces of the teeth and below the gum line. Tartar that forms below the gum line can be particularly problematic as it can lead to gum disease and bone loss if left untreated.

Effects on Oral Health

Effects of Plaque

Plaque is the main cause of tooth decay and gum disease. The acids produced by the bacteria in plaque slowly erode the tooth enamel, leading to cavities. Plaque can also irritate the gums, causing them to become red, swollen, and prone to bleeding. If plaque is not removed regularly, it can harden into tartar, making it even more difficult to clean and increasing the risk of oral health problems.

Effects of Tartar

Tartar, being a hardened form of plaque, can wreak havoc on oral health. It provides a rough surface where more plaque can accumulate, increasing the risk of cavities and gum disease. Tartar buildup can also lead to gum inflammation, swelling, and eventual bone loss if not removed by a dental professional. Additionally, tartar deposits can cause cosmetic issues, such as tooth discoloration and bad breath.

Removal and Prevention of Plaque and Tartar

Removal of Plaque

Regular brushing and flossing are essential for the removal of plaque. Brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing daily helps to disrupt the plaque and prevent its buildup. It is also important to visit your dentist regularly for professional cleanings to remove any stubborn plaque that may have hardened into tartar.

Prevention of Plaque

To prevent plaque buildup, it is crucial to maintain a good oral hygiene routine. This includes brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing daily, and using an antimicrobial mouthwash. A balanced diet low in sugary and starchy foods can also minimize plaque formation.

Removal of Tartar

Unlike plaque, tartar cannot be removed by regular brushing and flossing at home. Professional dental cleaning is necessary to remove tartar effectively. Dentists and dental hygienists use special instruments to scrape and scale the hardened deposits from the teeth and below the gum line. This procedure is known as scaling and root planing.

Prevention of Tartar

Preventing tartar formation begins with preventing plaque buildup. By maintaining a good oral hygiene routine, including regular brushing, flossing, and professional cleanings, you can minimize the accumulation of plaque and lower the risk of tartar formation. Using tartar control toothpaste and mouthwash can also help inhibit tartar formation.

Professional Dental Cleaning for Plaque and Tartar

Dental Cleaning for Plaque

During a dental cleaning, a dental hygienist uses specialized tools to carefully remove plaque and tartar from your teeth. They will also polish your teeth to remove any surface stains and give them a smooth, clean appearance. Dental cleanings are typically painless and leave your teeth feeling fresh and rejuvenated.

Dental Cleaning for Tartar

When it comes to tartar removal, a dental cleaning is the most effective method. As mentioned earlier, the process involves scaling and root planing, where the dental professional uses special instruments to remove the hardened deposits from the teeth and root surfaces. This deep cleaning helps to restore the health of the gums and prevent further damage caused by tartar buildup.

Routine Oral Hygiene Practices

Practices for Plaque Prevention

To keep plaque at bay, it is vital to adhere to a proper oral hygiene routine. This includes brushing your teeth at least twice a day for two minutes each time using a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. It is essential to brush all surfaces of your teeth and along the gum line. Additionally, flossing daily helps to remove plaque from areas that your toothbrush cannot reach.

Practices for Tartar Prevention

To prevent tartar formation, the same practices for plaque prevention apply. Regular brushing, flossing, and professional dental cleanings are crucial. It is worth noting that electric toothbrushes and tartar control toothpaste can provide additional benefits in terms of removing plaque and preventing tartar buildup.


Understanding the difference between plaque and tartar is essential for maintaining good oral health. Plaque is a sticky film that forms on your teeth and is the primary cause of tooth decay and gum disease. If left untreated, plaque can harden into tartar, a challenging substance that requires professional intervention for removal. By adopting a consistent oral hygiene routine, visiting your dentist regularly, and seeking professional dental cleanings, you can effectively prevent the accumulation of plaque and tartar, keeping your teeth and gums healthy and strong. So, don’t neglect your oral hygiene – take good care of your teeth and smile confidently!