Plaque vs. Tartar: Understanding the Differences

Understanding the difference between plaque and tartar is essential for maintaining optimal oral hygiene. While these two substances are related to each other, they differ in composition, formation, and the impact they have on dental health. In this article, we’ll explore the characteristics of both plaque and tartar.

Plaque vs. Tartar: Understanding the Basics

Key Takeaways

  • Regular brushing and flossing can prevent plaque from turning into tartar.
  • Tartar is a calcified form of plaque that requires professional cleaning to remove.
  • Understanding the difference between plaque and tartar can aid in better oral hygiene.

Plaque vs. Tartar: Understanding the Difference for Better Dental Health Pin

Understanding Plaque

Defining Plaque

Plaque is a sticky, colorless film of bacteria and sugars that constantly forms on our teeth. It’s the primary cause of cavities and gum disease, and if plaque isn’t removed regularly through proper oral hygiene, it can harden into tartar, leading to more serious dental issues.

Composition of Plaque

Plaque primarily consists of millions of bacteria, which are living organisms, and can vary in type. The substances within plaque include:

  • Bacteria: The main component, consisting of various types.
  • Saliva: Helps to provide proteins and glycoproteins that bacteria use to adhere to.
  • Food Particles: Particularly sugars and starches which bacteria metabolize.

Formation Process

Plaque begins to accumulate on your teeth when:

  • Bacteria in your mouth interact with sugar from food, forming an acid.
  • Acid production then leads to the demineralization of your tooth enamel.
  • Sticky film forms as a result of bacteria and saliva interacting, allowing the bacteria to stick to your teeth.

Health Implications

The presence of plaque on your teeth can lead to:

  • Tooth Decay: If plaque is not removed, the acid produced can attack tooth enamel, leading to cavities.
  • Gum Disease: Plaque accumulation can irritate your gums, potentially leading to gingivitis and, if untreated, periodontitis.

Understanding Tartar

Defining Tartar

Tartar, also known as dental calculus, is a hard, crusty deposit that forms on teeth when plaque is not removed and mineralizes over time. If you do not remove plaque regularly through brushing and flossing, it can harden into tartar. This process begins within 24-72 hours and can become firmly attached to teeth within 10-14 days. Unlike plaque, tartar is difficult to remove at home and typically requires professional dental cleaning.

Characteristics of Tartar

Tartar has a rough and porous texture, contrasting with the smooth surface of clean teeth, and can vary in color from yellow to brown. It usually accumulates on the interior of lower front teeth and the exterior of upper back teeth, but it can form anywhere in the mouth.

  • Location: Lower front teeth interior, upper back teeth exterior
  • Texture: Rough, Porous
  • Color: Ranges from Yellow to Brown

Impact on Oral Health

Tartar builds up both above and below the gum line and can lead to serious oral health issues if not addressed. Its presence can contribute to:

  • Gum Disease: Tartar can irritate and inflame the gums, leading to conditions like gingivitis and periodontitis.
  • Tooth Decay: Tartar provides a surface where plaque can accumulate, resulting in tooth decay.
  • Bad Breath: The rough surface of tartar can trap food particles and bacteria, leading to persistent bad breath.

Comparing Plaque and Tartar

Physical Differences

Plaque is a soft, sticky film that builds up on your teeth. It’s composed of bacteria, food particles, and saliva. Since it’s soft, plaque is invisible to the naked eye unless it’s stained. On the other hand, tartar, also known as calculus, is plaque that has hardened on your teeth. Tartar can vary in color from yellow to brown and is much more noticeable.

Removal and Treatment

The removal process for plaque involves daily brushing and flossing since it’s soft and can be easily dislodged. Tartar, however, requires professional dental cleaning to remove because it’s bonded strongly to the tooth surface. This process usually involves dental tools that scrape the tartar off your teeth, a procedure called scaling.

Prevention Strategies

To prevent plaque from forming:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day using a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss daily to remove food particles from between your teeth.

To avoid tartar build-up:

  • Maintain a regular dental hygiene routine as advised for plaque prevention.
  • Get professional dental cleanings at intervals recommended by your dentist, which typically is every six months.

Plaque vs. Tartar: Example Sentences

Examples of Plaque

  • The dentist warned that not flossing regularly could lead to plaque buildup on my teeth.
  • They unveiled a commemorative plaque at the school’s entrance to honor the founding principal.
  • Archeologists discovered an ancient plaque with inscriptions that shed light on the civilization’s culture.
  • Regular brushing can help prevent plaque from hardening into tartar, which is much harder to remove.
  • The plaque on the old building detailed the historical significance of the site.
  • During the checkup, the vet pointed out a small plaque on the dog’s teeth that needed cleaning.
  • The plaque by the artwork provided visitors with the artist’s name and the title of the piece.

Examples of Tartar

  • If tartar is left untreated, it can lead to gum disease and tooth decay.
  • The dentist used a special tool to scrape the tartar off my teeth during the cleaning.
  • You can help prevent tartar buildup by brushing twice a day and using dental floss regularly.
  • Once tartar has formed, it can only be removed by a dental professional.
  • Tartar control toothpaste can help slow the formation of tartar on teeth between dental visits.
  • My dentist explained that tartar is calcified dental plaque that’s much harder to remove.
  • She scheduled a follow-up appointment to address the tartar that was causing her gum irritation.

Related Confused Words With Plaque or Tartar

Tartar vs. Cavity

Tartar and cavities are two different dental issues, each with its distinct characteristics and consequences for oral health.


  • Tartar, also known as dental calculus, is a hardened deposit that forms on teeth when plaque is not removed and becomes calcified by minerals in saliva.
  • It is rough and porous and can range in color from yellow to brown.
  • Tartar buildup can lead to gum disease because it provides a rough surface where more plaque can accumulate and bacteria can thrive.
  • It typically requires professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist to remove it because it’s too hard to be eliminated with regular brushing and flossing.


  • A cavity, also known as dental caries, is a hole in a tooth that develops as a result of tooth decay.
  • Tooth decay occurs when the acids produced by plaque bacteria erode the enamel (the hard outer layer of the tooth) and, if left untreated, can progress to deeper layers of the tooth.
  • Cavities can cause toothache, sensitivity, and can lead to more serious issues like infections or abscesses if not treated.
  • Treatment for a cavity usually involves removing the decayed part of the tooth and filling it with a dental filling material.

In essence, tartar is a hardened form of plaque that can contribute to the development of gum disease, while a cavity is the result of tooth decay leading to a hole or structural damage in the tooth itself. Both conditions are preventable with good oral hygiene practices, including regular brushing, flossing, and dental check-ups.

Plaque vs. Stain

Plaque and stains on teeth are different issues that can affect dental health and aesthetics.


  • Plaque is a soft, sticky film that builds up on the surfaces of teeth. It is composed of bacteria, saliva, and food particles.
  • It is colorless or pale yellow and can accumulate on teeth, along the gum line, and in the spaces between teeth.
  • Plaque can lead to tooth decay and gum disease if not regularly removed through brushing and flossing.
  • It is the primary cause of cavities and gingivitis when the bacteria in plaque produce acids that attack tooth enamel and irritate the gums.


  • A stain refers to discoloration on the teeth. Stains can be extrinsic or intrinsic.
  • Extrinsic stains are surface stains that affect the outer layer of the tooth (enamel) and are often caused by the consumption of certain foods and beverages (like coffee, tea, red wine, and berries), tobacco use, or poor oral hygiene.
  • Intrinsic stains occur within the tooth structure (dentin) and can be caused by factors such as aging, exposure to high levels of fluoride during tooth development, certain medications, or trauma to the teeth.
  • Unlike plaque, stains do not cause tooth decay or gum disease, but they can affect the appearance of the teeth and may require professional cleaning or whitening treatments to remove or reduce.