Common Conditions

What is Plaque and Why Is It Harmful?

Plaque is something that forms naturally and at all times -- but it’s one of your body’s worst enemies.

by Dr. Burhenne

what is plaque

Run your tongue over your teeth right now. Just ate or haven’t brushed in a while? That film that you feel on your teeth is called plaque. This is the stuff you’re trying to remove every time you brush and floss — you can’t see it, but you know it’s there.

But why is it harmful? And why are we always getting told to remove it?

Plaque is something that forms naturally and at all times — but it’s one of your body’s worst enemies.

The buildup of plaque can lead to yellow teeth and bad breath, not to mention plaque is associated with heart diseases and dementia, so it’s important to understand what it is and how to deal with it.

What is plaque?

Plaque is a sticky film that is constantly forming on your teeth. Remember the Tooth Bug? Plaque is where he and all the bacteria in your mouth hang out.

These bacteria are nasty and you don’t want to give them the chance to move in and take over.

How does it harm the body?

If you allow plaque to build up by skipping teeth cleanings or neglecting to floss regularly, you activate the immune system chronically, which leads to unnecessary inflammation in the body. Long term inflammation in the body is what causes premature aging and systemic disease.

Imagine if you had the flu for several years — your immune system would be working that entire time, fighting the flu — and your body would have a whole lot of extra wear and tear.

How does plaque form in the mouth?

The bacteria in your mouth have a heyday when you eat — the food you eat gets broken down and the bacteria feast on simple sugars.

What goes in, must go out, and that’s exactly what happens after bacteria feast on your meal: they poop and pee! The acid excreted by bacteria after they consume sugars is their waste product and the stuff that leads to bad breath, tooth decay, destruction of enamel, and cavities.

It gets worse…

If you don’t remove plaque within the first 48 hours, it starts to harden and calcify, becoming impossible to remove with a toothbrush and floss. This hardened plaque is called tartar.

Ever had bleeding gums? This is caused by tartar beneath the gum line — the gums are irritated and inflamed in the presence of all that plaque and tartar buildup. This stage is called gingivitis and requires intervention by a dentist and hygienist.

How does it get removed?

You want to catch plaque in its earliest stages — before it turns into thicker plaque or the hard-to-scrape-off, calcified tartar. Brushing and flossing scrub away plaque before it can cause much damage.

Don’t floss? Or floss only before those dreaded cleaning appointments every six months? If you’re not flossing, you’re leaving behind the majority of this plaque, which forms immediately after a meal. Brushing only removes 40% of it.

How can you prevent plaque buildup?

Brush after meals, or at least twice per day. Plaque is in its most fragile stage within hours of eating. The sooner you remove plaque, the better.

Floss after meals, or at least daily. As with brushing, frequency and quality are important.

Get regular teeth cleanings. Some people are great flossers and brushers, and others aren’t so great — but no matter who you are, you will need to see a hygienist to remove the tartar that will inevitably from beneath the gum line and on your teeth. It happens to the best of us!

Eat a diet high in vegetables and limit starchy carbs. Bacteria love crackers and simple sugars and don’t like broccoli so much (kind of like people!). Limiting the foods bacteria love limits plaque buildup. There are lots of “health” foods to watch out for that are as bad as candy.

Ask your dentist about sealants. Dental sealants can be a great option for kids to prevent plaque buildup.

How can I remove tartar at home?

You can’t. If you Google search “remove tartar at home”, you’ll find a myriad of options and how-tos, but it simply isn’t possible as is best left to a professional.

Why not? Imagine the scale in your bathtub — the stuff that’s kind of grimy-looking. The only way to get in there and clean it off is to scrub it off, and the same goes for your teeth. below gums most virulent

Mouthwash can’t magically chemically remove it.

Using your own tools at home won’t work because you can’t physically get to every spot, not to mention to risk seriously damaging your tooth enamel with tools sharp enough to remove tartar and calculus.

I’ll leave you with this analogy to think about tonight when you floss and brush…

Think of this — you’re a sailboat in the water and you’re cruising along — but over time, algae adhere to the hull. When you come in at night, barnacles attach to the bottom of the boat.

Over time, all the buildup starts to slow you down and make it more difficult to cut through the water. Things become more difficult and require more energy.

Don’t let that be your boat!

Mark Burhenne DDS

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8 Comments

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  1. Have you every heard of ShowerFloss? It is an oral irrigator that attaches to the shower. I’ve been using mine for 15 years. Flossing doesn’t get any more convenient than this. Great product.

    • Hi Jan, I’m typically not a big fan of oral irrigators, but I will buy one, try it, and blog about it! Thanks for the recommendation!

      As an aside, here in California, we’re being told not to waste water, so I wouldn’t want any of my California patients or readers to be rushing through flossing in order to save water.

      – Dr. B

  2. I have started using Listerine Total Care Zero (the purple stuff) and find after a few hours I get a thick white gummy substance building up between the gum and inside the mouth. I can scoop it out with my finger. Is this plaque ?

  3. I just had dental implants about 6 months ago. I have not yet gotten my “permanent” set of teeth, but I am wearing a “temporary” set. I had my first appointment to have my molds made for the permanent teeth, and the hygienist noted that I had plaque build-up. She asked if I was using the tool that they gave me when I first got the implants. I said no, because they never showed me how to use the tool, or what it was for!! I went into my pension fund to pay for these teeth, and I am very upset with the “after care” program. I have another appointment next week, so – -don’t fuss at me- – – but I used some dental tools that I bought on Amazon, to scrap the plaque from my lower teeth. It was really a lot! Now, after doing my own research, I know how to use the little brush that I was given.

    Before I chose this particular Dentist, I explained my anxiety for dentistry – – – well, apparently he did not relay this information to the hygienist because she starting taking the plates out of my head and tightening the screws!!!! OMG, how painful. I immediately stopped her, and said that I could not do this. They made an appointment for me to come back later (about 6 weeks later). Well, that appointment is coming up in a few days. Wish me luck:)

  4. I didn’t know that prolonged plaque build-up can cause premature aging and disease. I’ve been so caught up in my new job that I haven’t had teeth cleaning done since I graduated from college. It might be a good idea to go to the dentist sooner rather than later so the plaque build-up doesn’t effect my health.

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