Updated on February 22, 2024
7 min read

What Is Plaque and How Do I Remove It?

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What is Plaque?

Plaque is a sticky film that builds up on teeth and gum surfaces. Plaque forms when bacteria break down carbohydrates from food into acid.

The acid in plaque mixes with leftover food particles, damaging tooth enamel if not removed properly. Plaque causes cavities when it repeatedly damages the enamel.

Some signs of plaque build-up include:

  • A fuzzy feeling on the teeth
  • Bad breath and taste in the mouth
  • Gums that appear red and swollen, and that bleed after brushing

What Does Plaque Look Like?

Brown Stain on the lower part of teeth and borderline of the gums due to dental problems

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.

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

Importance of Plaque Removal

image 3

Plaque can make teeth look dull and yellow. It also causes enamel damage, which can lead to tooth decay.

When plaque stays on teeth too long, it can harden into tartar. This is more difficult to remove and can only be done by a trained dental professional.

3D render of an example of ral hygiene of sing dental floss for plaque removing

Complications of plaque and tartar include:

  • Cavities ⁠— The bacteria in plaque produce acids, which destroy your tooth enamel, causing decay.
  • Gum disease ⁠— Plaque can irritate the gums if not cleaned properly, causing inflammation, swelling, or bleeding.
  • 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.
  • Bad breath ⁠— Bad breath, called halitosis, is an unpleasant oral odor often caused by plaque.
  • Tooth loss ⁠— If plaque and tartar aren’t removed, it can cause the gums to pull away from the teeth, leading to tooth loss.
  • 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.

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.

7 Ways to Remove Plaque From Teeth 

Removing plaque right away can help prevent any further complications associated with it. Here are some ways to remove plaque from your teeth:

1. Floss

Flossing before brushing your teeth is one of the best ways to remove plaque. It dislodges anything stuck between the teeth or in the gums. This makes brushing teeth more effective.

2. Use baking soda

Some studies have looked into the effects of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) toothpaste.1 They discovered that toothpastes with baking soda helped remove significantly more plaque than those without baking soda.2

The study also found that toothpaste with baking soda could reduce plaque in the more hard-to-reach areas of the mouth.

Baking soda has other benefits, including:

  • Antimicrobial properties that may prevent tooth decay.3
  • A high pH that can balance the pH level inside the mouth. This prevents demineralization, which refers to mineral loss in teeth that weakens enamel and leads to cavities.4
  • Inexpensive product (easily found in grocery stores and online).

3. Brush with an electric toothbrush

Brushing your teeth using an electric toothbrush has been proven to be more effective than using a manual toothbrush.5 Always aim to brush your teeth for at least 2 minutes, twice daily.6

4. Use fluoride toothpaste

Many toothpastes contain fluoride. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by making enamel more resistant to acids. It also helps rebuild enamel and slows decay.

Some studies suggest fluoride can stop tooth decay that has already started.7

5. Try oil pulling

This is where people swish or rinse their mouths with oil. You can use sesame oil, sunflower oil, or coconut oil.

A 2015 study noticed a significant decrease in the amount of plaque in participants’ mouths.8 However, there are also some potential downsides of oil pulling. These include jaw soreness and gastrointestinal upset from swallowing the oil that now contains bacteria.

Instructions:9

  • Practice oil pulling first thing in the morning.
  • Use a tablespoon of warm oil.
  • Swish for 5 to 20 minutes, forcing the oil through and around your teeth.
  • Do not swallow any of the oil.
  • Spit the oil into a trashcan or paper towel. Never spit into a sink, as oil can clog the pipes.

6. Use mouthwash

Using an antimicrobial mouthwash kills bacteria that cause plaque. Because mouthwash can reach spaces between the teeth and gums that toothbrushes can’t, research shows a significant reduction in plaque with consistent mouthwash use.10

7. Professional Treatments

Visiting the dentist for a teeth cleaning every six months is essential for good oral health.

Dentists clean areas of the mouth that you might miss at home. They can also remove plaque or tartar buildup on your teeth and advise you on how to clean your teeth at home.12

When to See Your Dentist

Regular dental checkups that include cleaning and polishing can keep your teeth free of plaque and tartar. You should see your dentist every 6 months.11

You should also visit your dentist if:

  • Your gums hurt or are red and swollen. This could be the initial stages of gingivitis, a reversible type of gum disease.
  • Your gums bleed after brushing or flossing.12
  • You have a toothache. This may indicate a cavity.
  • You have tartar build-up on your teeth

Never try to remove tartar at home. Although several dental tools are available for purchase in stores, they are easy to misuse and might cause severe damage if not used properly.

Tips for Preventing Plaque Build-Up

Preventing plaque buildup is better than removing it once it forms. There are a number of things you can do to stop plaque forming:

Chew Sugar-Free Gum

Research shows that chewing gum with sorbitol or xylitol can help prevent plaque from building up.15 Avoid gum containing sugar, which will encourage bacteria to grow, causing more plaque.

Brush Your Teeth After Meals

This is especially important if you eat or drink a lot of sugary and starchy foods. These stick to the teeth and cause bacteria and plaque buildup.

How to use the “Modified Bass Technique” to brush teeth:

  1. Hold your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle to your gumline so that the toothbrush bristles can clean under the gumline
  2. Brush teeth using a gentle, circular motion
  3. Brush the front of the teeth, back of the teeth, chewing surfaces, and tongue 

Maintain a Balanced Diet

The bacteria in your mouth feed on starchy and sugary foods. These kinds of food stick to your teeth, so try to limit them in your daily meals and snacks.

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.

Summary

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 February 22, 2024
16 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 22, 2024
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).
  1. Putt et al. “Enhancement of plaque removal efficacy by tooth brushing with baking soda dentifrices: results of five clinical studies.” J Clin Dent, 2018
  2. Myneni, S.R. “Effect of baking soda in dentifrices on plaque removal.” The Journal of the American Dental Association, 2017.
  3. Zero, D.T. “Evidence for biofilm acid neutralization by baking soda.” The Journal of the American Dental Association, 2017.
  4. Neel et al. “Demineralization–remineralization dynamics in teeth and bone.” Int J Nanomedicine, 2016.
  5. Grender et al. “Plaque removal efficacy of oscillating-rotating power toothbrushes: review of six comparative clinical trials.” Am J Dent, 2013.
  6. Toothbrushes.” American Dental Association, 2019.
  7. Aoun et al. “The Fluoride Debate: The Pros and Cons of Fluoridation.” Prev Nutr Food Sci, 2018.
  8. Peedikayil et al. “Effect of coconut oil in plaque related gingivitis — A preliminary report.” Niger Med J., 2015
  9. Shanbhag, V.K.L. “Oil pulling for maintaining oral hygiene – A review.” J Tradit Complement Med, 2017.
  10. Prasad et al. “The Clinical Effectiveness of Post-Brushing Rinsing in Reducing Plaque and Gingivitis: A Systematic Review.” J Clin Diagn Res., 2016.
  11. Oral Hygiene.” Cleveland Clinic, n.d.
  12. Why You Should See Your Dentist.” American Dental Association, 2013.
  13. Sealants.” Cleveland Clinic.
  14. Dental Sealants.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021
  15. Burt, B. A. “The use of sorbitol- and xylitol-sweetened chewing gum in caries control.” The Journal of the American Dental Association, Feb. 2006
  16. Patil, S.P., Patil, P.B., and Kashetty, M.V. Effectiveness of different tooth brushing techniques on the removal of dental plaque in 6-8 year old children of Gulbarga. Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry. 2014.
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