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Home Knowledge CenterWhat You Should Know About Dental Tartar and Plaque

What You Should Know About Dental Tartar and Plaque

Even if you have good teeth cleaning habits, you’re still likely to have dental plaque. When plaque becomes tartar, you are at risk for health issues.

What is dental plaque?

Everyone has some amount of plaque in their mouths. No matter how much you floss, brush, or go to the dentist, dental plaque is going to happen. When bacteria in your mouth mixes with other elements (like food and saliva), it can cause plaque. Plaque is very sticky and can coat the surface of your teeth as well as get under your gum line. While it’s usually colorless, it can cause a fuzzy feeling on your teeth.

What is dental tartar?

If plaque is not regularly removed by brushing, it can harden and lead to tartar. Dental tartar is also called “calculus” and is usually a yellow or brown-colored deposit that forms on the teeth.

Tartar may form above or below the gum line. It can cause more serious health issues if left untreated and it can start to eat away at your enamel. If tartar forms below the gum line, it will require a dentist or dental specialist to remove it.

You may be more likely to get tartar on your teeth if you:

  • Eat a lot of sugary foods or drink sugary beverages
  • Have dry mouth from certain medications or medical conditions
  • Smoke tobacco products
  • Have crowded teeth
  • Are older in age

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What is the difference between tartar and plaque?

When too much plaque builds up on your teeth without being removed, it will harden into tartar. Plaque tends to be soft and sticky. Tartar is hard, crusty, and much darker in color. Plaque doesn’t usually cause bad breath, but tartar can. While plaque can typically be removed by simply brushing and flossing your teeth, tartar will need to be removed by a dentist.

Can tartar cause dental issues?

Built-up tartar and plaque can lead to many dental health conditions and concerns. These may include:


If left untreated, dental tartar and plaque can erode your tooth enamel and lead to cavities. Your dentist will examine your teeth for cavities and may use dental x-rays to check for them. Dental fillings may be required to treat cavities.

Gum disease or gingivitis

Plaque and tartar can build up on your teeth, causing gum inflammation and possible gum disease (or gingivitis) over time. In extreme cases, tartar buildup can lead to receding gums and even periodontitis, a severe gum disease that cannot be reversed.

Are you concerned about gum disease? Take our Gum Disease Risk Assessment Quiz to learn more.

Tooth decay or tooth loss

In very severe cases, the buildup of dental tartar can cause tooth decay or tooth loss. If the damage continues, your dentist may need to remove your tooth.

How do you remove dental tartar and plaque?

Removing tartar and plaque depends on how much has built up on your teeth.

Removing dental tartar and plaque at home

Removing plaque is as simple as regularly brushing your teeth. You should also floss thoroughly once a day. By removing the plaque from your teeth, you have a lower chance of having tartar buildup.

Removing dental tartar and plaque at the dentist

At your regular dental check-ups, your dentist will examine your teeth for plaque and tartar buildup. They will scrape off plaque with a dental tool in places you may have missed while brushing. Your dentist will also polish and floss your teeth. Regular fluoride treatments can also help protect your teeth and your dentist will tell you if they recommend fluoride treatments.

How do you prevent tartar and plaque from your teeth?

The best thing you can do to minimize tartar and plaque buildup on your teeth is to practice good oral hygiene and general health habits:

  • Brush twice each day (your dentist may recommend using an electric toothbrush). Make sure to brush for at least two minutes and in multiple directions to ensure food particles and plaque get removed. You should also floss once per day.
  • See your dentist for a routine dental checkup twice per year. They will not only remove built-up plaque and tartar on your teeth but can suggest additional recommendations based on what they see. If you are especially prone to getting cavities, your dentist may suggest getting dental sealants. Sealants can help protect your teeth against cavities for a few years.
  • Try to limit sugary and starchy foods, and avoid smoking.

When should I talk to my dentist about my concerns?

If you’re experiencing bad breath that doesn’t go away with regular brushing, have pain or swelling, or bleeding gums, be sure to talk to your dentist. These can be signs of dental health issues that could require treatment.


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This information is for educational purposes only and is not medical advice. Always consult with your dentist for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations.

Insured by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company. Product availability may vary by location and plan type and is subject to change. All dental insurance policies contain exclusions and limitations. For costs and details of coverage, review your plan documents or contact a Cigna HealthcareSM representative. All Cigna Healthcare products and services are provided exclusively by or through operating subsidiaries of The Cigna GroupSM, including Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company and Cigna Dental Health, Inc. In Texas, the Dental plan is known as Cigna Dental Choice, and this plan uses the national Cigna DPPO Advantage network.

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