Tartar vs. Plaque: How Are They Different?

Tartar vs Plaque

Anyone who’s ever seen a toothpaste commercial will have heard dire warnings about the dangers of tartar and plaque. But what are tartar and plaque, exactly?

People tend to use the terms interchangeably, so you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the same thing. While they are closely related, there is actually a significant difference between the two. 

What is plaque?

Plaque is a sticky, transparent film that accumulates on teeth and under gums throughout the day. That feeling when you know your teeth could use a good brushing? It’s usually due to a buildup of plaque. The bacteria that live in plaque secrete harmful acids, which can contribute to a host of dental problems, such as:

  • Tooth decay
  • Gingivitis 
  • Enamel erosion
  • Cavities 
  • Bad breath 

This is why taking measures to remove plaque is so important. To keep plaque at bay, you need to brush twice a day and floss once. 

You should also use mouthwash, drink plenty of water, and avoid sugary snacks and starches. Maintaining a healthy diet and using an electric toothbrush can also help. 

What’s tartar?

When you let plaque accumulate, it reacts with the minerals in your saliva and becomes what’s known as calculus, the academic name for tartar. Not only is it an unattractive yellowish-brown color, but this hard, crusty deposit can also:

  • Trap stains 
  • Cause discoloration 
  • Irritate gums
  • Cause inflammation 

Once you have tartar on your teeth, a trip to the dentist is unavoidable. Thanks to its super-strong bond with tooth enamel, only a dental professional will be able to remove it without causing further harm. 

While every set of teeth is unique, some individuals are more prone to tartar than others. You might be susceptible if you: 

  • Are a smoker 
  • Have braces  
  • Are older  

Sometimes, it just comes down to the way your body works. Some people produce extra-mineralized saliva, which speeds up the hardening process plaque goes through to become tartar. 

Which is worse?

Plaque and tartar are the causes of many of the most common dental problems. In fact, one study found that roughly 68% of adults deal with some level of tartar, and the presence of some amount of plaque is simply inevitable. 

You might argue that tartar is worse, since you can manage plaque by maintaining good oral hygiene practices at home. However, when it comes down to plaque vs. tartar, the reality is that it’s best to be proactive and avoid both. 

Talk to your dentist 

Even if your dental hygiene habits are phenomenal, it’s still important to see your dentist every six months for checkups and regular cleanings. With the right combination of home and professional care, you can keep your mouth plaque- and tartar-free, which is definitely something to smile about. 

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