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Plaque Build-Up vs. Tartar: Understanding the Differences

Confused about the difference between plaque and tartar? Our blog post explains everything you need to know, from how they form to how to prevent them. Keep your teeth healthy and clean with our expert tips and advice.

Taking care of your teeth is important for maintaining good oral health. However, even with regular brushing and flossing, plaque build-up and tartar can still occur. While these two terms are often used interchangeably, they are actually different and require different approaches for prevention and treatment. In this blog, we will explain the differences between plaque build-up and tartar and how individuals can notice the differences.

What is Plaque Build-Up?

Plaque is a sticky, colorless film of bacteria that forms on teeth and gums. It is constantly forming on our teeth and can be removed by regular brushing and flossing. Plaque isn’t visible to the eye–you can only see it under a microscope. 

Plaque build-up occurs when the bacteria in plaque are not removed and are allowed to multiply, leading to a thicker layer of plaque on the teeth. Plaque is the main cause of gingivitis, which causes inflammation and irritation of the gums. It can also lead to tooth decay if left untreated. 

In addition, plaque build-up can cause bad breath, tooth decay, and gum disease if left untreated. 

Plaque is Normal

Plaque constantly forms, so it’s not unusual to see or feel it in the midst of the day. When you consume anything that contains carbs (such as sugar), plaque can form. Cavities and tooth decay are brought on by bacteria in plaque converting sugar into acid. Plaque will be more harmful to your teeth the more sugar you consume!

Temporary plaque accumulation won’t harm your teeth permanently as long as you brush twice a day for two minutes.

What is Tartar?

Tartar, also known as calculus, is a hard, yellow or brown deposit that forms on teeth when plaque is not removed. Tartar is essentially hardened plaque that has been left on the teeth for an extended period of time. Unlike plaque, tartar cannot be removed by brushing or flossing and requires professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist.

How to Notice the Differences

It’s a common misconception that plaque and tartar are one and the same. While they are related, they are two separate entities. For many people who have experienced tooth sensitivity due to buildup of tartar underneath their gums’ surfaces, this can lead them to believe that removing all traces of tartar from their mouths will solve all problems related to having sensitive teeth–but this isn’t necessarily true! You may still experience discomfort even after removing all visible traces of tartar because there could still be microscopic amounts left behind in small crevices; difficult for you or even professionals like us here at Clermont Dental, who specialize in cosmetic dentistry services, to remove.

1. Easy to spot

Plaque is usually easy to spot as it is a sticky film that can be felt on the teeth. It can also be seen as a yellow or white film on the teeth, especially along the gum line. Plaque can cause bad breath and may cause the gums to become red and swollen.

2. It’s hard to spot

Tartar, on the other hand, is harder to spot as it is usually the same color as the teeth. It can form on the front or back of teeth and may appear as a yellow or brown stain. Tartar can cause bad breath and may cause the gums to recede, making the teeth appear longer. It can also make it more difficult to brush and floss effectively, leading to further plaque build-up and potential oral health problems.

Prevention and Treatment

Preventing plaque build-up and tartar is essential for maintaining good oral health. Regular brushing and flossing are the best ways to prevent plaque build-up. Brushing twice a day for two minutes each time and flossing at least once a day can help remove plaque from teeth and gums. Using an antimicrobial mouthwash can also help kill bacteria in the mouth and prevent plaque build-up.

Tartar, on the other hand, cannot be removed by brushing and flossing alone. Professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist is required to remove tartar. During a cleaning, the dentist or hygienist will use special tools to scrape away the tartar and plaque from the teeth. Regular dental cleanings every six months can help prevent tartar build-up and other oral health problems.

In addition to regular dental cleanings, individuals can also take steps to prevent tartar build-up at home. Here are some ways you can do so:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes each time. Floss once daily, or use a WaterPik if it’s easier for you to use.
  • Use a tongue scraper (a tool that looks like a bent tweezer) to remove plaque from your tongue at least once daily and after meals. 
  • Avoid sugary foods. Unfortunately, yummy snacks encourage bacteria growth in the mouth. Tobacco products and caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, or soda (which erode tooth enamel) also contribute to plaque buildup on teeth.
  • Eat healthy foods rich in vitamins A and C.  These promote healthy gums when taken internally over time. You should also limit processed food intake as much as possible while still maintaining good nutrition overall so that you don’t get cavities!
  • Using a tartar control toothpaste can help prevent tartar from forming on the teeth. 


While plaque build-up and tartar are often used interchangeably, they are actually different and require different approaches for prevention and treatment. Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria that can be removed by regular brushing and flossing, while tartar is a hard deposit that requires professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist. By understanding the differences between plaque and tartar and taking steps to prevent their build-up, individuals can maintain good oral health and prevent potential oral health problems

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