What Is The Difference Between Plaque And Tartar?

Dr. Christopher Li Etobicoke - Li Family Dental

By Dr. Christopher Li

February 7, 2023

dental checkup, dental cleanings, difference between plaque and tartar, plaque, tartar

Plaque and tartar might seem like they are the same thing. Any toothpaste that says it fights plaque also says it fights tartar. And both form on your teeth. So what is the difference between these two, and how does that impact the health of your teeth? Understanding the difference between plaque and tartar is essential for anyone who brushes their teeth. Because you can brush plaque off simply, but no matter how much you brush, you won’t remove tartar unless you visit the dentist’s office. Here is what you need to know about these two.

What Is Plaque?

If you run your tongue along your teeth, you may feel a slightly fuzzy surface. This is plaque. It usually blends right in with the colour of your teeth and is hard to see. But you can feel that it is a thin layer of build-up. It may be gross to think about, but this is a layer comprised of a few different ingredients:

  • Saliva
  • Bacteria (good and bad)
  • Food particles

Plaque is normal, but we do need to remove it from our mouths. What happens is the bacteria in the plaque feed on food bits and then secretes acids. The acid can wear down our enamel, which is the thin, white layer of protection on our teeth. If you wear down enamel completely, it cannot remineralize and you don’t get it back. So, it is essential to protect it by removing that layer of plaque.

When you leave plaque in place, it can make many oral health problems that you may already have much worse. It can also create problems of its own. When you ignore plaque, you are risking:

  • Gum Disease: Both mild gum disease and more severe gum disease can be caused by plaque. Gingivitis and periodontal disease, the two kinds of gum disease, can both cause pain, swelling, infection and more. If you have gum disease, controlling plaque is essential.
  • Bad Breath: Plaque is a home for bad bacteria and good bacteria. The bad kind that does not support our health can cause bad breath. Clearing out plaque more regularly can keep this under control.

Plaque is always a natural development on your teeth. However, you can accelerate how much develops and how much it feeds bad bacteria by eating more sugary foods and eating them for longer through the day. In essence, you want to cut down on sugars and avoid continuously snacking. Instead, brush your teeth after every meal to remove the sugars which contribute the most to plaque development.

If you do not remove plaque, you get tartar.


What Is Tartar?

Of the two, you should be most concerned with tartar. But only because tartar is what happens when plaque calcifies and hardens. It attaches to your teeth more permanently and is impossible to remove by brushing. In fact, tartar development can prevent you from accessing your teeth properly with your toothbrush or your floss. Tartar is also porous and allows in more bacteria, allowing more of the bad bacteria to grow and potentially causing many other issues.

Tartar can be anywhere on your teeth but tends to form on the chewing surfaces or along the gum line. When left untreated, there are a handful of bad outcomes you might experience, including:

  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding from gums
  • Swollen gums
  • Gum recession
  • Gum detachment
  • Pockets formed in gums
  • Tooth mobility
  • Tooth loss
  • Cavities

Tartar can cause and contribute to many different oral diseases, especially gum disease. It is critical to have tartar removed especially because it may require several treatments to resolve.

Brushing And Flossing For Plaque


You can remove plaque on your own at home without any special tools or instructions. Brushing and flossing your teeth promote the health of your teeth, and one of the most important results of excellent oral hygiene is removing plaque. So, all you need to do is brush and floss properly and regularly.

Proper brushing includes:

  • Using a soft bristle or an electric toothbrush
  • Brushing twice per day or more
  • Brushing for two whole minutes or more
  • Brushing all areas of your teeth
  • Choosing the right fluoride toothpaste

Proper flossing includes:

  • Bending the floss around the whole tooth
  • Flossing both sides of each tooth
  • Allowing the floss to dip below the gums

It can help to go into your dentist’s office and take their recommendations about how often you need to brush and how your specific technique can improve. We tend to develop our brushing habits over time and that can result in completely missing sections of our mouth or spots on our teeth when we brush.

How To Remove Tartar?


Once you have developed tartar, you will not be able to get it off at home. A dentist’s office has special tools dedicated to tartar removal, including scalers. These tools are powerful and, in untrained hands, could do serious damage to your teeth and enamel. You need professional attention to ensure your tartar has been removed without damaging your teeth or gums.

Avoiding Plaque And Tartar


You can always avoid the development of more plaque and tartar. The absolute best way to do this is to follow proper brushing and flossing techniques and get in to see your dental hygienist for regular cleanings. However, there are a handful of other things you could consider doing if plaque and tartar have been a problem for you, including:

  • Make dietary changes: Sugar and other carbohydrates contribute the most to plaque development and provide fuel for bad bacteria. Few people want to cut out carbs entirely but limiting your sugar intake can help. It can also help to avoid frequent sugary snacks and to brush your teeth after you’ve eaten.
  • Mouthwash: If you use an antiseptic mouthwash which destroys bacteria, you can lower the number of bad bacteria in your mouth.
  • Avoid smoking: Those who smoke are more likely to have plaque and tartar problems.

Understanding The Difference Between Plaque And Tartar

Li Family Dental can remove tartar and help you with all aspects of your oral health. Give us a call at 416-232-2033 or request an appointment by clicking here.

Dr. Christopher Li

About the author

Doctor Christopher Li, DDS
Dr. Chris, as he is affectionately known, is a licensed dentist with over 20 years experience. His caring personality makes even the most tentative person at ease. Patients are constantly commenting about how Dr. Chris is incredible at delivering pain-free freezing, and how he has an amazing chair-side manner.  Dr. Chris loves sharing information with his patients and everyone who has teeth about how to care for their teeth, avoid tooth decay, and the treatments available to help them overcome their tooth pain or other dental issues so they can enjoy life and food to its fullest!

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