Plaque, Tartar, & Calculus: What’s the Difference?


Most of us are aware that we need to brush our teeth regularly to avoid dental decay and cavities, but we don’t exactly know why. Dentists often refer to harmful buildup on the teeth as plaque, tartar, or calculus without explaining the difference between each of them. At Glendale Holistic Dentistry, we believe awareness about dental issues through education is one of the best methods of preventing dental emergencies and maintaining healthy teeth. That’s why we believe it’s important for patients to understand even the nitty, gritty details of dental care.

What is plaque?

Plaque is probably the most commonly used term you hear at the dentist’s office. It’s essentially a sticky film that is composed of bacteria, sugar or food debris, and enamel-eroding acids. The natural bacteria in your mouth feed off the sugar in food and drinks, turning them into acid. This process results in plaque. If plaque is left on the teeth, the acids can eat away at the outer layer of the teeth. Though it sounds scary, this is easily preventable with good dental hygiene! The accumulation of plaque is normal and it shouldn’t be too much of a threat to your health as long as you make sure to scrub and floss it away regularly.

Since bacteria can only create harmful acids with sugar, a good way to reduce the risk of cavities from plaque is by cutting your sugar intake. Obvious suspects include chocolate, candy, and soda, but there are also many foods that contain sugar that aren’t

What’s the difference between tartar and calculus?

Actually, there is no difference between tartar and calculus! They refer to the same thing – hardened plaque. When plaque isn’t removed, it turns into tartar/calculus. Not only can tartar/calculus grow beneath the gum line, it’s difficult to remove without professional help. Leaving these deposits can result in the rapid decay of teeth and gum disease. A mild form of gum disease that most people are diagnosed with at one point is gingivitis. It can be characterized by red, swollen gums that bleed slightly if agitated. When left untreated, gingivitis can progress to periodontal disease, which is characterized by pockets loose gums, inflammation, and pain. It can eventually lead to infection and bone and tooth loss.

Can tartar or calculus be treated at the dentist’s office?

Though the dentist can remove most plaque or tartar buildup with a dental scaler, the damage inflicted by the plaque is irreversible. Once the acids have penetrated the enamel, it can be difficult to remineralize the surface of the teeth. Dentists will often fill large holes or cavities to prevent bacteria from further infecting them. In extreme situations,

The best way to avoid these situations is by practicing preventative dental care! You can only develop serious problems if you’re not cleaning your teeth adequately. See your dentist at least every six months, so they can diagnose whether you are at risk of any gum disease and help you remedy the problem. Eating nutritious, calcium-rich foods can strengthen your teeth. Using fluoridated products can also remineralize the enamel over time. There are tons of ways to keep your teeth healthy.  

If you need to schedule a checkup at the dentist, give us a call at Glendale Holistic Dentistry. We’re happy to help! Our Glendale dentist, Dr. Erwin, is dedicated to providing nontoxic, holistic dental care for patients throughout Los Angeles.