What’s the difference between plaque and tartar?

Plaque, calculus, tartar – these are all words you might hear during your regular teeth cleaning at your dentist. But what exactly do they mean? And what’s the difference between them all?

As leading periodontists in Tampa and New Port Richey, we’re very familiar with these terms and what they mean for your gum and oral health. We want to make sure you know all about plaque and tartar too – because we believe patient education is critical to maintaining a happy, healthy mouth!

Let’s chat about the difference between plaque and tartar and how calculus relates to these two!

Calculus vs plaque

What is plaque and how do you remove it? 

Plaque is the fuzzy stuff that you feel on your teeth when you run your tongue across them. It’s made of a soft, sticky film and contains up to 300 species of bacteria

But how does plaque get on your teeth? Think of your mouth as an ecosystem, there’s the natural organisms your body makes (aka bacteria) and the organisms that are introduced (food or beverages). Each time you have a snack, meal, or a beverage (other than water), you’re introducing new organisms into your natural oral microbiome.  

Plaque forms in your mouth when leftover food particles and bacteria from your saliva mix together. If you don’t brush and floss properly after meals, it begins to form and build up on your teeth (even while you sleep, that is when our mouths produce twice as much bacteria!) That bacteria can contribute to tooth decay and gum disease.

But good news – removing plaque is easy! 

  1. Just simply brush your teeth for two minutes, making sure to pay close attention to the inside portion of your teeth (tongue-side) and the chewing surfaces of your molars. 
  2. Then floss each side of each individual tooth to remove plaque from under your gum line. 
  3. And top off your routine with one of the best mouthwashes for gum health

What is calculus?

So we know all about plaque now, what’s this “calculus” term? (We promise there’s no math involved in figuring this one out.) 

Calculus is hardened plaque! It takes about 48 hours for most plaque-causing bacteria to form and harden into calculus, which is also known as tartar. Now tartar is bad news for your teeth and gums. Not only is it extremely acidic to your enamel, but it’s also highly irritating to your gum tissue. Left on your teeth too long, tartar will cause tooth discoloration, tooth sensitivity, cavities, and lead to periodontal disease

What does calculus look like on teeth? Tartar on your teeth appears as a gritty line along your gum line, between your back teeth, and under your gum line! It can range in color from white, yellow, or brown. 

The types of dental calculus and how to remove calculus

There are two different types of dental calculus and they have to do with where it forms. 

  1. Supragingival calculus forms above your gum line. 
  2. Subgingival calculus occurs when your calculus extends to below your gum line. 

So how do you remove calculus from your teeth?

Removing calculus is trickier than plaque removal. Only a certified dental professional can remove calculus (tartar) from your teeth – which is why it’s important you visit your dentist twice a year for your teeth cleaning. Your dental hygienist will be able to remove calculus with a special dental tool called a “scaler”, which requires a certain level of technique and expertise. 

If your general dentist suspects you have subgingival calculus or your supragingingal calculus has caused inflammation in your gums (gingivitis), they’ll refer you to a top periodontist near you for treatment. This is because only a certified periodontal professional can remove calculus from below your gum line. 

Your periodontist will remove calculus from below your gum line using a procedure called scaling and root planing. Just like your regular dental cleaning, your periodontist will clean the crowns of your teeth and between your teeth. Then they’ll move on to below your gum line, taking care to remove toxins, bacteria, and calculus from each affected area and smoothing your tooth root to encourage your gums to reattach and reduce inflammation. 

PHC has been providing advanced periodontal care in the Tampa Bay area since 1977. If you have symptoms of periodontal disease or your general dentist referred you to us, you can rest assured your gums are in expert hands! At your first visit, one of our experienced periodontists (Dr. Stilley, Dr. Medina, or Dr. Mashkouri) will examine the condition and health of your gums and discuss your treatment options to help you make the best decision for your health. 

Still have questions about the difference between plaque and tartar?

No matter how great your oral hygiene is, plaque and tartar formation are inevitable – especially if you have periodontal disease! 

So come in to see us for your regular periodontal maintenance appointments (about every 3 to 6 months)! At PHC, our highly-experienced periodontists are dedicated to improving your gum health and providing you with the resources you need to maintain a beautiful, healthy smile – plaque and tartar-free!

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions. We love to hear from you. We’re here to support you and your gums! 

If you’re looking for a top periodontist in Tampa or New Port Richey, we’d love to meet you! Request an appointment today.

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