Which is Worse – Tartar or Plaque?

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When you go to the dentist, you may have heard them use the words tartar and plaque. But what exactly is tartar and plaque? While they are similar, they do have their differences. And one is worse than the other. Read on to learn all about tartar and plaque, as well as tips for how to prevent them.

What is Plaque?

Plaque is a colorless, sticky film that constantly builds up on the tooth’s surface. Withing a few hours of brushing, plaque begins to forms on the tooth – especially along the gum line. The problem with plaque is that it is made up of bacteria. This bacteria produces acids when combined with your saliva and sugar from food and drink.

The acids damage the tooth enamel, causing cavities and gum disease. When plaque develops under the gums, the tooth’s root becomes affected, which damages the bones that support the teeth.

Plaque is natural and very common. Pretty much everyone has some level of plaque on their teeth. However, some people are prone to having more plaque. These people may smoke, have dry mouth due to medication, or consume a lot of sugary food and drinks.

What is Tartar?

Top: Tartar build up and ginigvitis
Bottom: Healthy gingiva
Photo from Wikipedia

Tartar is what we call the hardened form of plaque. It is made up of mineralized dead bacteria. Another name for tartar is calculus. Tartar forms when plaque on the teeth is not removed by brushing or flossing.

Tartar usually forms right at and underneath the gum line. Therefore, it often causes gum irritation and gingivitis. People with tartar build up often experience swollen and bleeding gums.

When tartar is not removed from the gumline, pockets of bacteria can form between the gums and teeth. The gum tissue and bones could become infected, causing periodontitis and tooth loss. Some studies even see a correlation between the bacteria in gum disease to heart disease as well.

You can tell if you have tartar, vs plaque, by looking at it. While plaque is colorless, the porous nature of tartar allows it to easily absorb stains. Tartar is usually quite visible on the tooth, as it is a yellow or brown color.

Which is Worse – Tartar or Plaque?

After learning about the differences of tartar and plaque, I think it is safe to say that tartar is worse. When plaque is not removed from the teeth by brushing and flossing, it hardens and turns into tartar. At this point, the tartar is strongly bonded to the tooth enamel. Removing tartar will require a trip to the dentist.

Detection of Plaque and Tartar

Tartar is usually not to difficult to detect, as it tends to be yellow or brown colored. Plaque, on the other hand, is colorless and more difficult to see. Sometimes you can feel plaque on your teeth when you rub the surface with your tongue. It may feel rough or fuzzy.

Another way to detect plaque is by using plaque disclosing tablets. These colorful tablets are chewed for a minute or so and then spit out. The plaque on your teeth will remain the color of the tablet. These tablets are a helpful visual aid for those who have trouble removing plaque in certain areas.

How to Prevent Plaque and Tartar

Remember, bacteria multiplies very quickly, and the more sugary food you eat, the more you are feeding the bacteria. While plaque cannot be 100% stopped from forming there are things you can do to lessen the plaque on your teeth.

  1. Brush your teeth twice a day.
  2. Floss daily.
  3. Visit your dentist every 6 months.
  4. Eat a balanced diet.

Since tartar forms when plaque hardens, the best thing you can do is prevent plaque in the first place. This can be done by making adjustments to your diet. Reducing the amount of carbohydrates and sugar in your diet can make a noticeable difference in plaque formation.

Brushing and flossing daily is imperative in plaque and tartar control. For best results, use an anti-plaque fluoride toothpaste when brushing. Flossing is the best way to remove food particles, plaque, and tartar from between the teeth. This should be done daily.

Mouthwash can also help with plaque and tartar prevention. They provide protection against both plaque and gingivitis by killing bacteria in the mouth and preventing plaque regrowth.

Finally, it is important to see your dentist every six months for a teeth cleaning. The reason is that tartar build up can only be removed by a dental professional. Seeing a dentist regularly is also the best way to remove plaque before it becomes a problem.


Plaque is a sticky film that naturally builds up on the tooth’s surface. When plaque builds up and hardens, it turns into tartar. Tartar can cause cavities, gum disease, and even tooth loss. Between the two, tartar is worse because it is more difficult to remove. Plaque and tartar can be controlled by brushing and flossing daily, seeing a dentist regularly, and maintaining a healthy diet.