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Understanding plaque on teeth

Man checking his teeth in mirror
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We’ve all heard of plaque, but how many of us know exactly what it is or why it’s so bad for our teeth? If you’re curious, read on for our straightforward guide to understanding the plaque on your teeth – and how to get rid of it.

What is plaque?

Plaque is a soft substance that naturally forms on your teeth. You can remove it by brushing your teeth and flossing – although it’s not uncommon for plaque to get overlooked in difficult to reach areas!

The reason we need to remove plaque is because it contains bacteria which are harmful to our teeth. These bacteria feed on the sugars we consume and release acids, as well as other harmful substances.

Plaque develops on the teeth quickly – in less than 24 hours it can be visible on the teeth if they haven’t been brushed. If plaque is left to build up for several days, it will irritate the gums, causing gingivitis. Left longer, plaque will harden into tartar (also known as calculus) which is much harder to remove.

In the long term, plaque and tartar can end up causing tooth decay and gum disease, sometimes resulting in tooth loss.

What causes plaque?

Plaque is a naturally occurring substance that is always forming on the teeth. The bacteria in our mouths break down the carbohydrates we consume, releasing acids in the process. Plaque forms from the resulting mixture of bacteria, carbohydrates and acids. It appears as a colourless, sticky film.

Risk factors for plaque

Everybody has plaque, but some people might have more than others. You might have more plaque if you consume a lot of sugary or starchy foods and drinks, if you smoke, or if you have a dry mouth due to medication or a medical condition. People who have had radiation on their head and neck may also have more plaque than others.

The worst food and drink for your teeth

As you probably already know, the worst foods and drinks for your teeth are those that contain a lot of sugar. If you want to take better care of your teeth, it’s a good idea to cut back on the following:

You don’t need to cut these foods out completely, but instead of having them every day try to have them as treats. Where possible, switch out sugary drinks for sugar-free alternatives, and eat fresh fruit instead of sweets or chocolate.

How to combat plaque

The best way to get rid of plaque is to clean your teeth by:

  • Brushing at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste
  • Using floss and/or interdental brushes to clean between your teeth

It’s also important to visit your dentist and dental hygienist for regular check-ups. They can remove build-ups of plaque and tartar. It’s especially important to visit your dentist if you notice any new symptoms like swollen and red gums, bleeding after brushing, or bad breath.

Plaque vs tartar

Tartar (also known as calculus) is essentially a hardened version of plaque. It forms when plaque absorbs calcium and phosphate from your saliva. Tartar appears as a chalky, yellow substance and attaches to the teeth in a way that is difficult to remove.

Usually, you’ll need to go to your dentist or dental hygienist to have tartar removed from your teeth, as it requires the use of special instruments.

References:

https://patient.info/oral-dental-care/toothache/dental-plaque-and-gum-disease
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/tooth-decay
https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/lifestyle-tips-for-healthy-teeth
https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/take-care-of-your-teeth-and-gums
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gum-disease