What Is Dental Plaque and How to Fight It

You’ve heard the advice from your dentist and from your parents ever since you were little. Brush your teeth twice daily to remove plaque and prevent tartar buildup. Floss regularly to remove plaque and prevent tartar buildup. Wash your mouth regularly with mouthwash to (you guessed it) remove plaque and prevent tartar buildup. Schedule regular visits with your dentist to remove plaque and—well, you get it.

For the million times that you’ve heard these mantras repeated, however, it’s just occurred to you that you don’t actually know what those terms mean. What is dental plaque? What is tartar buildup? What’s the difference between them? Do I really need to know? Somehow or another, you’ve intuited that plaque is that gross white stuff that you can feel forming on your teeth whenever you run your tongue over them. It comes off when you floss or when you use a toothpick and, for the most part, it seems harmless. It’s odourless and colourless and right after you brush your teeth, your mouth feels clean and it’s free of that weird stuff anyway. Only occasionally—say, after a long camping trip when you forgot your flossing kit—does that mysterious stuff turn yellow and smelly. Maybe it’s even grainy and a little hard. Perhaps when you finally reunite with your flossing kit, it felt kind of like you were mining for minerals with a piece of string instead of casually cleaning your mouth.

Knowing exactly what dental plaque is and how it leads to tartar buildup will give you a greater appreciation for oral and dental health. Even if only because learning what it is grossed you out.


What Is Dental Plaque?

Before we dive into the details, it’s worth noting that what dental plaque is and how it forms is a complex and broad area of research. This brief description aims to give you a working understanding for the purpose of improving your own dental and oral hygiene. With that said, dental plaque can most easily be defined as a biofilm made up of bacteria and, to a lesser degree, fungi, that forms on your teeth. You can think of a biofilm as a quilt or patchwork made up of over 1,000 unique swatches—or, as the case may be, over 1,000 unique species of bacteria. These bacteria come together in different stages, with each previous “stage” of bacteria creating the environment to facilitate the arrival of the next.

An even easier analogy is to think of these bacteria as your mouth’s tenants. Tenants who don’t pay rent, make a giant mess and, worst of all, eat your food. Plaque-forming bacteria feed off of the food that you eat—they’re particularly fond of starchy and sugary foods—and use that food to grow and multiply. The acids that these bacteria produce are harmful to your teeth’s enamel and encourage the wrong kind of bacteria to come around.

One of the reasons that your dentist won’t stop repeating the mantra of brushing twice daily and flossing regularly is to reduce the number of food particles hanging around your mouth. Those flavour savers drastically increase the amount of fuel for those bacteria and allow them to grow exponentially. That’s precisely what you don’t want to have happen.


Tartar Buildup

You’ll never be able to effectively evict those bacterial tenants—nor, necessarily would you want to. For all of their faults, having those bacteria in your mouth is better than leaving it “abandoned” for any disease-causing virus or pathogen to waltz right on in. It is important, however, to keep those bacteria in line. If plaque builds up, then over time, it will accumulate minerals from your saliva and harden, forming what people with the designation D.D.S. would call dental calculus (a.k.a. tartar). While tartar is hard and mineral-like, it is technically still full of living organisms—organisms that love to cause problems for your gums. If tartar is allowed to build up unabated, it will eventually cause gum disease and infection, cavities, tooth decay, and tooth loss.

There’s no clinically proven effective method to remove tartar at home which is one of the reasons why scheduling regular trips to the dentist is so important.


Now that you know what dental plaque is and how it becomes tartar, you can have a greater appreciation for dental and oral hygiene. And now you know why your dentist sounds like a broken record. Book your appointment with us today and impress us with your knowledge—and your plaque-free smile!