What’s the difference between dental plaque and tartar?

Dental Plaque and Tartar

We get enough reminders from toothpaste and mouthwash ads to know that dental plaque and tartar are not something we want for our teeth. We are told that they are the devil for our denticles, sneakily setting up home in our mouths when we least expect it, causing all sorts of havoc for our oral health. 

The concept of keeping our teeth clean is instilled in us from an early age. In fact, the NHS recommends that you should start brushing your babies teeth as soon as their milk teeth start to show. This can be as early as 6 months old. If not, we are warned that our precious little innocents will be struck down with the dreaded mouth monsters, faced with years of discomfort and decay.

It’s easy to forget how much of a significant contribution our mouths play in our lives. It’s not just there to look pretty. It performs some of the most important everyday functions that serve to keep us healthy and alive. Eating, drinking, breathing and are all pretty high up in the scale of human existence. When you put it into this perspective we should cherish the wellbeing of our mouths with the reverence it deserves, keeping it safe from all harm.  

It’s pretty common knowledge that plaque and tartar are a bad thing. But, how many people understand what these pesky blighters are? Where do they come from? Why do they bother us and what are we supposed to do when they take over?

Knowledge is power, so to give you some authority and control over your dental health we’ll be discussing the details and difference between dental plaque and tartar. We are sure you will agree that whatever it takes is worth it to keep your teeth and mouth in tip-top condition.

Are dental plaque and tartar the same thing?

Whilst dental plaque and tartar are intrinsically connected, they are in fact two different things. First of all the characteristics are very different.

Dental Plaque is a soft, sticky, colourless gunk which is in constant production as we go through our normal daily routines. We cannot stop it from forming as it is a by-product of the functions that our teeth and mouth perform. Plaque can form super quickly and can be detected as a fuzzy film that coats the teeth. You will probably be most aware of it first thing in the morning after it has had the opportunity to develop uninterruptedly during your slumber. What we want to avoid is it finding a comfortable place to settle and remain.

Plaque carries with it millions of bacteria, which are feeding on the morsels of food debris that can be found stuck in your teeth and gums. As the bacteria feed, they produce an acid which can damage the enamel of the teeth. If plaque is permitted to settle and is not removed quickly, it will eventually turn to tartar.

By comparison, tartar is a solid, hard crusty substance that once established is pretty much impossible to remove yourself at home. It has a yellowy-brown colour with a rough texture and is, therefore, easier to notice than plaque. Once formed, it provides a perfect breeding ground for more bacteria to settle. It invites further discolouration as its porous surface absorbs stains and if it establishes along the gum line can irritate and lead to receding gums and gingivitis. Tartar can begin to form within 48 hours of dental plaque build-up, so timing is of the essence here to nip it in the bud before it gets the chance to bed in.

What are the effects of dental plaque and tartar build-up?

None of this sounds good, does it? It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t feel good and we can assure you it doesn’t smell good either. There are a whole host of unpleasant symptoms that develop as a result of dental plaque and tartar build-up.

  • Fuzzy teeth
  • Inflammation and irritation of gums
  • Bad breath
  • Leads to tartar build up
  • Attacks tooth enamel causing cavities
  • Cavities will require repair or fillings
  • Root canal treatment
  • Discoloured / stained teeth
  • Swollen, puffy gums
  • Bleeding gums
  • Gum disease / Gingivitis
  • Periodontal Disease
  • Encourages further bacteria growth

Since none of these symptoms are desirable you may now understand why your dentist is so keen to see you for check-ups every so often. Whilst plaque can be managed well at home, once tartar begins to form you will have no choice but to seek treatment from a dentist or hygienist.

What can I do to avoid dental plaque and tartar build-up?

It is in fact very straight forward to avoid the development of dental plaque with your own at-home dental hygiene routine. Since plaque develops very quickly, almost as soon as you have eaten or brushed your teeth, its important to react quickly. Everyone gets plaque, so there is no avoiding it but by following these simple everyday steps, you should keep the problem under control.

  1. Brush twice a day: no surprises here! Everyone knows they are supposed to brush their teeth twice a day for at least 2 minutes. Cleaning your teeth at the end of a day of eating and drinking won’t stop plaque from forming, but will wipe the slate clean so to speak and rid your teeth of debris that the bacteria in dental plaque enjoys feasting on. First thing in the morning will set you up well and rid your teeth of any film that has formed over night.
  2. Floss once a day: not only does floss help to dislodge any food in the hard to reach areas between your teeth (which are ideal breeding conditions for bacteria) it can also help to avoid bad breath from rotting food and help to reduce the chance of gum disease. Always floss before brushing
  3. Have your teeth cleaned professionally every 6 months: there’s a reason your dentist likes to see you twice a year. Firstly they can see how successful you have been with your own home cleaning routines. Secondly they spot if there are any problems that have developed needing attention and thirdly, this is the ideal opportunity for a deep clean to remove any tartar build up and give you a solid foundation on which to maintain.
  4. Eat sugary, starchy foods in moderation: since these are the preferred foods for plaque bacteria, it’s important not to overdo-it on your sweet, carby intake. This can include chocolate, fizzy drinks, fruit juices and alcohol. Also watch out for ingredients ending in ‘-ose’ as they will have a sugary content e.g glucose, fructose, sucrose.
  5. Help between meals: sugar free gum, rinsing with mouthwash and drinking water can all help to keep the build up of acid that comes after eating at bay.

Since tartar only forms as a result of plaque build-up, you are technically killing 2 birds with one stone by following the above recommendations. However, if tartar has already set in, then the only option is to have it professionally removed by a dentist or hygienist. No amount of brushing or flossing is going to fix the problem once it reaches this stage. Intervention is vital to avoid the progression of gum disease and tooth decay, which will be the most costly treatment route in the long term.

Are you up to date with your dental check-ups and hygiene? Have you noticed the tale-tell signs of a tartar build-up? Let’s get on top of it. Book an appointment today!

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