What does tartar vs plaque mean for your smile?

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 top orthodontists in Melbourne, Merritt Island, and Viera, Dr. Caudill and Dr. McNeight are very familiar with these terms and what they mean for your oral health. We want to make sure you know all about plaque and tartar too – because we believe patient education is critical to a successful orthodontic treatment and maintaining a healthy, beautiful smile for life!

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 white spots after braces, 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 an antibacterial, fluoride mouthwash!


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 gum 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.

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.


Still have questions about tartar vs plaque?

Plaque formation is inevitable because it’s a naturally occurring reaction in your mouth as you eat, which is why it’s critical to stay on top of your oral hygiene routine – especially in braces or Invisalign treatment, as these orthodontic devices create more spaces for plaque to grow.

So be sure to receive your professional teeth cleaning twice a year from your general dentist and coast in to see us for your regular orthodontic appointments every 6 to 12 weeks! Our highly-experienced orthodontists will be able to make any adjustments to your braces or Invisalign attachments while our orthodontic assistants will review your oral hygiene.

A great oral hygiene score earns you more than a healthy smile with us too! Through our patient rewards program, you’ll receive a token at each appointment for keeping your smile-in-progress plaque and tartar-free which you can put towards earning yourself a $10 gift card.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions! We’re here to guide you through orthodontic treatment and ensure that you achieve beautiful, lifelong results. If you’re looking for advice – or just want to chat about your child’s treatment – we’re here for you.

Ready to get started? Request your complimentary orthodontic exam with our experienced orthodontists in Merritt Island, Melbourne, and Viera today!