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Updated on July 21, 2022

Plaque on Teeth: Causes, Prevention & Treatment

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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. 

plaque on teeth

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
  • 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.

3d illustration of dental plaque

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.

Plaque on Teeth

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 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 general 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. 

cavity NewMouth

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 build up 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.
18 Sources Cited
Last updated on July 21, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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