Plaque and Tartar: What You Should Know

“Plaque” and “tartar” are two words that you see frequently in the world of dental health, and chances are you’ve spotted toothpastes that are targeted against precisely these two things. But what are plaque and tartar, exactly? Here is what you need to know about them.

Plaque vs. tartar

First, it’s important to understand the difference between plaque and tartar.

Plaque, also known as dental biofilm, is a soft, sticky film that builds up on your teeth. It forms when bacteria in your mouth mix with carbohydrates, which are found in a wide variety of foods—not just sugary foods. This creates an acid, which then combines with left-behind particles of food and saliva to form plaque. Plaque ranges from colorless to pale yellow in color and can be difficult to spot on your teeth. Fortunately, it can be removed gently using typical brushing and flossing methods, as long as you brush and floss within about 48 hours of plaque formation; plaque that is not removed effectively will harden into tartar

Tartar, as you may have gathered, forms after plaque is left alone for as little as 48 hours on your teeth. You can think of it as essentially mineralized plaque. Once plaque has formed into tartar, it becomes nearly impossible to remove from your teeth and must be professionally scraped off by a dentist.

Associated Health Risks

Plaque and tartar can pose some major health risks on your dental and oral health. They can eat away at tooth enamel, causes cavities, and even lead to tooth decay. They can also cause bad breath and contribute to gradual yellowing of the teeth.


Fortunately, there is a great deal you can do to prevent plaque and tartar formation. You should avoid foods and drinks that are most likely to cause plaque and tartar formation, including cake, candy, dried fruit, and soft drinks (essentially, anything that is high in carbohydrates). But since many foods—even the healthiest of foods—contain carbohydrates, you should expect some plaque to form on your teeth. This is why it’s so important to practice proper dental hygiene, brushing and flossing thoroughly and regularly, and supplementing with mouthwash if necessary. You can even get anti-plaque toothpaste and mouthwash if plaque seems to be an especially big problem for you. To ensure that your dental hygiene practices are up to par, you might consider picking up some plaque disclosing tablets at your local drug store, which will temporarily stain plaque to tell you where you may need to do a better job of brushing.