Plaque on Teeth: Causes, Prevention & Treatment

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Medically Reviewed
by Dr. Lara Coseo
Kyra Wilians
Written by
Kyra Wilians
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Evidence Based
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18 sources cited
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What is Plaque?

Dental plaque is a sticky coating on the surface of the teeth that forms after eating food. Plaque affects all humans and naturally forms on the surface of the teeth towards the gum line daily. It can have a slippery or fuzzy texture and an unpleasant odor. 

3d render of teeth with plaque and tartar over white background

Plaque forms on teeth when bacteria in the mouth causes a chemical reaction. The human mouth naturally contains thousands of bacteria. When humans eat and chew food, the carbohydrates from the food combine with natural bacteria in the mouth and create acid.

The acid then combines with food particles and saliva to create a sticky, hard substance. Plaque also contains exfoliated cells from the lining of the inside of the mouth.

Some plaque may be good for the teeth because the thin layer of biofilm protects teeth from the dietary acid in food. The bacteria in plaque also protect against other more harmful bacteria.

Plaque buildup is dangerous and can lead to many health complications. Risk factors of plaque buildup include gum disease, tartar, tooth decay, tooth loss, and other general health issues.

Proper at-home oral health practices can help prevent and remove plaque build-up. Brushing and flossing twice a day, and using mouthwash is usually enough to protect your teeth and gums from plaque. However, some conditions may lead to plaque and tarter development.

What Does Plaque on Teeth Look Like?

It appears as a soft, sticky coating on the surface of the teeth and between the teeth.

Plaque can be challenging to see and ranges in color from translucent to pale yellow. When plaque builds up, it can make the teeth appear yellow.

Teeth with Plaque

Causes of Plaque Buildup

Eating foods that contain carbohydrates, like sugars and starches, causes plaque buildup on the teeth. Bacteria feed on the sugars in the food particles and produce acids.

Common foods that can cause plaque buildup include milk, fruit, and processed foods like soft drinks, candy, cakes and pastries, breakfast cereal, and other sugary foods.

Other causes of plaque buildup include:

  • A weakened immune system which leads to an increase of bacteria in the mouth
  • Diabetes which causes high glucose levels in saliva, which helps bacteria to grow 
  • Infrequent dental cleanings which allow tartar to build up and make teeth difficult to clean at home
  • Poor daily oral hygiene can cause bacteria in the mouth to increase ten-fold
  • Dry mouth allows more plaque to accumulate because the helpful, anti-plaque effects of saliva are missing
  • Smoking weakens the body’s immune system, which leads to an increase of bacteria in the mouth

How to Remove Plaque on Teeth

Plaque is a sticky film that will remain on teeth unless removed with a toothbrush or floss. Plaque buildup can cause many complications, including tooth decay, gingivitis (mild gum disease), or periodontal disease (advanced gum disease).

It is essential to remove plaque on teeth frequently to avoid any oral health issues. The best way to prevent plaque is by maintaining proper oral care practices. 

Here are 8 methods dentists recommend for plaque removal and buildup prevention: 

Brushing your teeth twice a day

Brushing and flossing are the most important aspects of your oral health routine. Brush twice a day for two minutes each time. Use baking soda or an anti-plaque fluoride toothpaste.

Using an electric toothbrush

Electric toothbrushes are more effective at getting rid of plaque and tartar than manual models. Models with the American Dental Association (ADA) seal of approval have gone through rigorous testing and are approved to help reduce plaque. Learn more from our Review of the Best Toothbrushes of 2021.

oralb pro 1000 electric toothbrush

Flossing at least once a day

Whether you use a water flosser or dental floss, regular flossing is very important. Interdental cleaning is the only way to remove plaque from the small spaces between your teeth.

Rinsing with mouthwash

An antiseptic mouthwash can help kill bacteria that cause plaque. Rinse once or twice a day.

Watch your diet

The bacteria in your mouth eat sugary and starchy foods. Try to limit them in your daily meals and snacks.

Drink plenty of water during and after meals

Drinking water during and after meals helps remove food particles from your mouth. This limits the things that bacteria can eat

Oil pulling using coconut oil

There is little published research around oil pulling. It involves swishing and "pulling" oil around your mouth and through your teeth for fifteen to twenty minutes. Most people use coconut oil, but you can use any vegetable oil such as olive, sunflower, or sesame oil. Proponents of this practice say that coconut oil kills bacteria and viruses (antibacterial) and anti-inflammatory. The antibacterial quality makes it a more "natural" option to fight plaque.

Frequent dental checkups and cleanings

Your dentist will check your teeth for plaque and can remove plaque or tartar during your regular teeth cleaning. It's recommended to visit your dentist at least once every six months.

Risk and Side Effects of Plaque Buildup

Risks of plaque buildup include:

Tartar (Calculus) Formation

If dental plaque is not removed, it hardens and forms tartar or calculus. Plaque needs to be removed within 24 hours to prevent tartar formation.

Tartar is more hardened than plaque and impossible to remove without the help of a dental professional. Tartar build-up often spreads below the gum line, which causes gum inflammation or infection. 

Tartar removal requires a visit to a dental professional for a thorough teeth cleaning using specialized dental instruments. Tartar compromises the health of the gums and can contribute to the development of periodontal disease. Remove plaque as quickly as possible to prevent tartar formation.

Cavities (Tooth Decay)

Cavities, also called tooth decay or caries, are bacterial infections of tooth surfaces that develop into tiny openings or holes. Roughly 92% of adults have tooth decay.

The bacteria in plaque produce acids, which destroy your tooth enamel, causing tooth decay. 

progression of a cavity

Gum Disease (Gingivitis and Periodontal Disease)

Gingivitis is a type of periodontal disease that causes gum inflammation. Nearly half of adults aged 30 or older have gum disease. If not cleaned properly, plaque can irritate the gums, causing inflammation, swelling, or bleeding.

Gingivitis is the early stage of periodontitis, a severe gum infection. Gingivitis can be prevented, controlled, and treated with good oral hygiene, including regular professional cleanings.

Bad Breath (Halitosis)

Bad breath, also called halitosis, is an unpleasant oral odor that is often caused by plaque.  Plaque causes a buildup of odor-producing bacteria on the teeth and tongue. Roughly eight to 50 percent of people in the world have recurring bad breath.

Tooth Loss 

Periodontal disease can cause the loss of connective tissue and bone, which may lead to tooth loss. When plaque builds up in the mouth, the bacteria in the plaque accumulate and cause the teeth to separate from the gum line. This triggers the body’s immune response, and the inflammation causes damage to the connective tissue and bones. 

General Health Issues

Oral health is connected to overall body health, and plaque buildup can lead to many general health issues. When plaque and oral bacteria buildup in the mouth, it can lead to oral infections and gum disease, which causes many other medical complications. This happens when the bacteria in plaque travels through the bloodstream to other areas of the body and causes inflammation, which results in damage to the body’s internal organs. 

Plaque buildup increases the risk of stroke, diabetes, pneumonia, premature birth, arthritis, and heart disease.

How to Prevent Plaque Buildup

Here are the methods dentists recommend to help prevent plaque buildup:

  • Brush and floss teeth twice a day to remove plaque from teeth.
  • Rinse with mouthwash to eliminate excess bacteria in the mouth.
  • Eat a balanced diet and avoid excess carbohydrates and sugary foods.
  • Visit the dentist twice a year for regular cleanings and dental exams.
  • Avoid smoking tobacco, which lowers the body’s immune system and causes more plaque buildup.

Resources

Brody, Barbara. “The Surprising Thing That Could Be Causing Your Bad Breath.” Content Lab U.S., Johnson & Johnson, 5 Nov. 2018, https://www.jnj.com/health-and-wellness/surprising-causes-of-bad-breath

COSTA, C. C. da; COSTA FILHO, L. C. da; SÓRIA, M. L.; MAINARDI, A. P. R. Plaque removal by manual and electric toothbrushing among children. Pesqui Odontol Bras, v. 15, n. 4, p. 296-301, out./dez. 2001. https://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S1517-74912001000400005&script=sci_arttext

“Dental Caries in Adults (Age 20 to 64).” National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, July 2018, https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/research/data-statistics/dental-caries/adults

“Dental Plaque.” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10953-plaque#:~:text=Plaque%20develops%20when%20foods%20that,enamel%2C%20resulting%20in%20tooth%20decay.

“Diabetes, Gum Disease, & Other Dental Problems.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 Sept. 2014, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/gum-disease-dental-problems

“Gum (Periodontal) Disease.”  College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics, The University of Iowa, www.dentistry.uiowa.edu/patient-care-periodontal.

“The Health Risks of Gum Disease.” NHS Choices, NHS, 31 Aug. 2018, www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/health-risks-of-gum-disease/.

Kane, Shawn F. “The Effects of Oral Health on Systemic Health.” General Dentistry, Academy of General Dentistry, 2017, www.agd.org/docs/default-source/self-instruction-(gendent)/gendent_nd17_aafp_kane.pdf.

Kumar, Purnima S, et al. Tobacco Smoking Affects Bacterial Acquisition and Colonization in Oral Biofilms. Nov. 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257914/

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Marsh, Philip D. “Dental Plaque as a Biofilm and a Microbial Community - Implications for Health and Disease.” BMC Oral Health, BioMed Central, 15 June 2006, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2147593/

Peedikayil, Faizal C, et al. “Effect of Coconut Oil in Plaque Related Gingivitis - A Preliminary Report.” Nigerian Medical Journal : Journal of the Nigeria Medical Association, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4382606/

“Periodontal Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 July 2013, https://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/conditions/periodontal-disease.html

“Plaque and Tartar on Teeth: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002044.htm. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002044.htm

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Putt MS;Milleman KR;Ghassemi A;Vorwerk LM;Hooper WJ;Soparkar PM;Winston AE;Proskin HM; “Enhancement of Plaque Removal Efficacy by Tooth Brushing with Baking Soda Dentifrices: Results of Five Clinical Studies.” The Journal of Clinical Dentistry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19278079/

Shmerling, Robert H. “Gum Disease and the Connection to Heart Disease.” Harvard Health, Harvard Medical School, Apr. 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/gum-disease-and-the-connection-to-heart-disease.

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