Updated on March 14, 2024
5 min read

What Is Tartar?

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What is Tartar?

Tartar is hardened dental plaque. When plaque is not removed, it combines with minerals in the saliva and calcifies. 

Tartar is also called dental calculus. It is porous and stains easily, which gives it a yellow or brown appearance. Not only is this unsightly, but it can also cause a variety of health issues.

3D render of tartar and bactrail tooth plaque on teeth of lower jaw

Oral Health Risks of Tartar

When plaque turns into calculus, or tartar, it needs to be removed by a dental professional. 

Unremoved tartar can impact oral health in a number of ways:

  • Cavities — tartar damages tooth enamel, potentially leading to cavities (tooth decay). Left untreated, cavities can cause toothaches and infections. Tooth decay needs to be treated promptly to prevent extractions or root canals. 
  • Halitosis — Bad breath and a bad taste in the mouth is called halitosis. Bacteria mixing with plaque and food particles can release foul smells.
  • Gingivitis — Also known as gum disease, gingivitis is characterized by gum inflammation. Your gums might be red, swollen, and bleed easily when you brush and floss. Fortunately, this condition can be reversed with good dental hygiene. 
  • Periodontitis — If gingivitis is left untreated, it can turn into periodontitis. This is when the gums pull away from the teeth and bone loss occurs.1 Teeth will loosen or fall out without treatment.2

Professional Treatments for Tartar Removal

Dental professionals are able to safely and effectively clean hard-to-reach areas in the mouth with: 

Regular Teeth Cleanings

Dentists are trained in how to use tartar removal tools. They will typically use metal instruments to scrape the tartar from the surface of teeth. 

Root Planing

Scaling and root planing conventional periodontal

If the tartar is extensive, you may need a procedure called root planing. This is where the dentist removes tartar that has built up below the gumline.

Other Preventive Dental Treatments

In addition to the treatments above, here are some other preventive treatments dentists offer:

  • Sealants, which are thin, plastic coatings that bond to tooth surfaces. They create a shield that protects the enamel from damaging plaque and bacteria. 7
  • Patient education to help prevent tartar from building up in the first place. This may include diet and lifestyle changes. 

Can You Remove Tartar At Home?

Once plaque mineralizes and hardens into tartar, it is not safe or easy to remove at home. 

Many tools are available to buy in stores and online, but they are ineffective against tartar when not used by a trained dental professional. In fact, they are easy to use incorrectly and can cause damage if misused.

However, removing dental plaque is easy to do at home. By keeping your mouth free of plaque, you can stop tartar from forming. If tartar is already present, you’ll need to visit a dentist for a professional teeth cleaning. 

How to Remove Dental Plaque

young girl flossing teeth

You can easily remove plaque before it hardens into tartar. Follow these steps:

  • Floss daily flossing at least once a day (before brushing your teeth) helps loosen plaque and food particles between the teeth and gums.6
  • Brush with an electric toothbrushelectric toothbrushes are more effective than manual toothbrushes at reducing plaque.3 Brush your teeth for at least two minutes, twice a day.4
  • Use a fluoride toothpaste — research shows that fluoride makes teeth more resistant to decay. Fluoride slows the growth of bacteria that causes plaque, making it less likely to form.5
  • Use mouthwash daily — using an antiseptic mouthwash every day reduces plaque bacteria on the teeth, tongue, and in between teeth. Use mouthwash after brushing and flossing for best results. The liquid reaches places you might otherwise miss with brushing and flossing alone. 

How to Prevent Tartar Build-Up

Here are other ways to prevent plaque and tartar buildup:

Brush Your Teeth Twice Daily

Visiting the dentist regularly does help to prevent tartar building up, but it should not be used as a replacement for good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush at least twice a day for a minimum of two minutes. This is equal to around four seconds per tooth.6

Floss Daily

Flossing removes plaque stuck between teeth and improves oral health. 

Chew Sugar-Free Gum

If you’re unable to brush your teeth after eating, chewing gum sweetened with sorbitol or xylitol is a good alternative. Research shows that this type of gum can help reduce plaque. However, avoid gum that contains sugar, as this can cause cavities. 8

Other Tips

  • Use a dental pick, an interdental brush, or dental sticks to clean the areas in between the teeth and gums
  • Limit sugary foods and drinks that cause plaque formation
  • If you smoke, quit. This habit causes a number of oral and general health issues. Tobacco and nicotine products also stain tartar, making it more noticeable.

When to See Your Dentist

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends visiting a dentist at least once a year for checkups.2 The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends increasing frequency if you have any oral health concerns. 6

Dentists are doctors of oral health. This means they deal with disease prevention and treatment. Therefore, you should have frequent check ups to keep your mouth healthy, rather than just visiting when something is wrong. Your dentist can recommend how often to see them by examining your overall oral health.

You should schedule an appointment with your dentist if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Mouth sores
  • Bad breath that does not go away
  • Loose teeth
  • Receding gums or gums pulling away from teeth
  • Pus between your gums and teeth
  • Bleeding gums
  • Pain in your mouth, gums, or teeth


Tartar forms when plaque hardens and combines with minerals in the saliva. It can be yellow or brown, and can cause a lot of damage to the teeth and gums. It also leads to serious oral health conditions like periodontitis if left untreated. 

You should never try to use dental tools to remove tartar at home. But there are effective ways to prevent it. For example, fluoride toothpaste and antibacterial mouthwash fight against plaque-causing bacteria. Brushing and flossing regularly also prevent plaque build up, thus preventing tartar formation. 

It’s essential to visit your dentist twice a year for professional teeth cleanings and scaling to remove any tartar build up.

Last updated on March 14, 2024
8 Sources Cited
Last updated on March 14, 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. Gum Disease Information” American Academy of Periodontology, n.d.
  2. Periodontal Disease” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Jul. 2013
  3. Grender, J. et al “Plaque removal efficacy of oscillating-rotating power toothbrushes: review of six comparative clinical trials” Am J Dent, Apr. 2013
  4. Toothbrushes” American Dental Association, Feb. 2019
  5. Dental Plaque” Cleveland Clinic, n.d.
  6. Home Oral Care” American Dental Association, 2020.
  7. Dental Sealants” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Mar. 2021
  8. Burt, B. A. “The use of sorbitol- and xylitol-sweetened chewing gum in caries control” The Journal of the American Dental Association, Feb. 2006
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