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  • Dr Vyla Ellis

Plaque and tartar. What’s the difference?

You brush your teeth really well every morning and every night and you even floss every few days. So why is it that when you go to the dentist you are told you need to have your teeth cleaned? The answer lies in the difference between plaque and tartar.


Plaque is a soft sticky film of bacteria that builds up on the teeth, tongue, gums and other

surfaces of the mouth. It’s usually off-white but in some situations can be coloured. Plaque forms whenever we eat or drink. The amount of plaque formed is higher when sugars and carbohydrates are consumed.

Plaque is removed when we brush and floss our teeth. It’s soft and comes off easily with a soft bristled toothbrush and gentle pressure. The bacteria in plaque can cause cavities in the teeth. Twice daily brushing and flossing removes the plaque and therefore reduces the risk of decay.


While plaque is sitting on the teeth it is subject to our saliva. The salts in our saliva cause plaque to mineralise which results in the formation of tartar. The combination of salts in our saliva is individual and because of this some people will build-up more tartar than others. Poor brushing and flossing will also increase the amount of tartar. Tartar is hard and sticks to the teeth and underneath the gum. It is usually tooth coloured but in smokers will become brown.

Tartar can only be removed by dental professionals: hygienists, oral health therapists, dentists and periodontists. All the brushing in the world will not remove the tartar. It contains bacteria which can eat away at the bone and gum around the tooth leading to gum disease. Gum disease can result in tooth loss and is linked with heart disease, diabetes and premature births. Having tartar removed regularly (we recommend at least 6 monthly), reduces the risk of gum disease and is the treatment of choice for gum disease sufferers.

Everyone gets tartar. Good brushing and flossing will reduce the amount of plaque and tartar build-up but having it removed will still be necessary for your general health. Don’t feel bad about tartar. Even your dental team have to have their teeth cleaned!

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