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Updated on January 19, 2023
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Plaque on Teeth: Causes, Prevention & Treatment

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What is Plaque on Teeth?

Dental plaque is a sticky coating of bacteria on the surface of the teeth. It can have a slippery or fuzzy texture and an unpleasant odor. 

Everyone has plaque. It’s constantly forming on your teeth, towards the gum line, after eating and drinking. 

What Does Plaque Look Like?

Plaque appears as a soft, sticky coating on the surface of the teeth and between the teeth. It’s not always easy to see. It ranges in color from translucent to pale yellow. 

When plaque builds up, it can make the teeth appear yellow and/or orange.

image 4

How Does Plaque Form?

Plaque forms on teeth when bacteria in the mouth causes a chemical reaction. 

The human mouth naturally contains thousands of bacteria. When you eat and chew food, the carbohydrates combine with bacteria in your mouth to create acid.

The acid then combines with food particles and saliva to create plaque. Plaque also contains exfoliated cells from the inside of the mouth.

image 3

What Causes Plaque Buildup on Teeth?

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
  • Bread and cereal
  • Pasta
  • Baked goods, like cake or pastries
  • Candy
  • Fruit (especially dried fruits) 
  • Juice or soda

Risk Factors for Severe Plaque Buildup

Everyone accumulates plaque on their teeth. However, some people may be at higher risk for severe plaque buildup than others.

You may be more likely to develop plaque buildup if you have:

  • A weakened immune system can increase bacteria in the mouth.
  • Diabetes causes high glucose levels in saliva, which helps bacteria to grow.
  • Infrequent dental cleanings allow tartar to build up, making teeth difficult to clean at home.
  • Poor daily oral hygiene can cause bacteria in the mouth to increase exponentially. Appliances in your mouth (such as braces) also make oral hygiene challenging.
  • Dry mouth allows more plaque to accumulate because the anti-plaque effects of saliva are missing.
  • A smoking habit weakens the body’s immune system, which leads to an increase of bacteria in the mouth.

Health Effects of Plaque Buildup

Some plaque may be good for the teeth. 

The thin layer of biofilm protects teeth from the dietary acid in food. The bacteria in plaque also protect against other more harmful bacteria.

However, significant plaque buildup is dangerous and can lead to many health complications.

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 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 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 are bacterial infections of tooth surfaces that can develop into holes. Roughly 92% of adults have tooth decay.

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

image 2

Gum Disease 

Plaque can irritate the gums if not cleaned properly, causing inflammation, swelling, or bleeding. Nearly half of adults aged 30 or older have gum disease. 

Gingivitis can be prevented, controlled, and treated with good oral hygiene, including regular professional cleanings.

Bad Breath (Halitosis)

Bad breath, called halitosis, is an unpleasant oral odor often caused by plaque. 

Plaque causes a buildup of odor-producing bacteria on the teeth and tongue. Roughly eight to 50 percent of people worldwide have recurring bad breath.

Tooth Loss 

Periodontal disease can cause the loss of the connective tissue and bone surrounding your teeth, which may lead to tooth loss.

When plaque builds up in the mouth, the bacteria accumulate and cause the teeth to separate from the gum line. This triggers the body’s immune response. The resulting inflammation causes damage to the connective tissue and bone surrounding your teeth. 

General Health Issues

Oral health is connected to overall body health. Plaque buildup can lead to many general health issues.

Bacteria in plaque can travel through the bloodstream to other areas of the body and cause inflammation. This results in damage to the body’s internal organs. 

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

How to Remove Plaque on Teeth

Plaque will stay on the teeth unless removed with a toothbrush or floss. Dental plaque must be removed regularly to avoid any oral health issues. 

If you have severe plaque buildup, only a dental professional can remove it. They will scrape plaque and tartar off your teeth during a dental cleaning.

Your dentist may also recommend other treatments to minimize plaque accumulation, such as:

  • Dental sealants
  • Medications to increase saliva production
  • Prescription mouthwash

How to Prevent Plaque Buildup

Practicing diligent oral hygiene is the best way to prevent plaque buildup. It’s much easier to stop plaque from accumulating than it is to remove it.

Here are dentists’ top tips for preventing plaque buildup:

Brush Your Teeth Twice Daily

Brush twice a day for at least two minutes. Use baking soda with fluoridated mouthwash or an anti-plaque fluoridated toothpaste.

Use an Electric Toothbrush

Electric toothbrushes may be more effective at getting rid of plaque than manual toothbrushes, though both can get the job done. 

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.

Oral B Pro 1000

Floss Once Daily

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

Use Mouthwash

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

Maintain a Balanced Diet

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

Drink Water During and After Meals

Drinking water during and after meals helps remove food particles from your mouth. This limits the growth of bacteria, which leads to plaque.

Oil Pull Using Coconut Oil

There is little published research on 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 is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. The antibacterial quality makes it a more "natural" option to fight plaque.

Schedule Routine Dental Cleanings and Check-Ups

Your dentist can remove plaque or tartar during your regular teeth cleaning. You should visit your general dentist at least once every 6 months.


Plaque is a sticky film that forms on the surface of your teeth. It’s created by bacteria that develop from eating carbohydrates.

A significant buildup of plaque can be dangerous to your health. It can cause tartar, gum disease, cavities, and more. 

You can prevent plaque buildup by practicing good oral hygiene. If you have significant plaque buildup, visit your dentist for a professional cleaning.

Last updated on January 19, 2023
18 Sources Cited
Last updated on January 19, 2023
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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  12. Peedikayil, F., et al. “Effect of Coconut Oil in Plaque Related Gingivitis - A Preliminary Report.” Nigerian Medical Journal, National Library of Medicine, 2015.
  13. Periodontal Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,  2013.
  14. Plaque and Tartar on Teeth.” MedlinePlus,  National Library of Medicine, 2022. 
  15. Porter, S., et al. “Oral malodour (halitosis).” BMJ, National Library of Medicine, 2006.
  16. Putt, M., et al. “Enhancement of Plaque Removal Efficacy by Tooth Brushing with Baking Soda Dentifrices: Results of Five Clinical Studies.” The Journal of Clinical Dentistry, National Library of Medicine, 2008. 
  17. Shmerling, R. “Gum Disease and the Connection to Heart Disease.” Harvard Health, Harvard Medical School, 2018.
  18. Which Foods Cause Tooth Decay?” NHS Choices, NHS, 2019.
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