Dental Plaque

Dental plaque is a sticky film that forms on your teeth. Everyone gets plaque. But it’s important to remove it through regular dental cleanings and daily brushing and flossing. Left on your teeth, plaque can lead to cavities, gingivitis and other oral health conditions.


What is dental plaque?

Dental plaque is a sticky film of bacteria that constantly forms on your teeth. It’s normal to produce plaque. But if you don’t remove plaque with routine dental cleanings and daily brushing and flossing, it can cause cavities, gum disease and other oral health issues.

What is tooth plaque made of?

Plaque contains bacteria, leftover food particles and saliva. When you eat, the bacteria in your mouth feed on food debris (like sugars and carbohydrates). This breaks the food down into a sticky, acidic film — what we know as dental plaque.

What does plaque look like on your teeth?

Technically, plaque is colorless. But sometimes it can cause tooth discoloration because food particles stick to the plaque.

Dental plaque makes your teeth look (and feel) “fuzzy.” If you run your tongue over your teeth and it feels like they’re wearing tiny sweaters, that’s plaque.

Tartar vs. plaque

Tartar is hardened plaque. If you don’t remove plaque regularly, it will turn into tartar. At this point, you can’t brush or floss it away. Only a dentist or hygienist can remove it. Dental calculus is another name for tartar.

Tartar might be off-white or yellow at first. But after a while, it will take on the color of whatever foods or substances you consume. For example, certain things can make tartar look darker, including:

  • Coffee.
  • Tea.
  • Red wine.
  • Smoking.
  • Chewing tobacco.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of dental plaque?

Common dental plaque symptoms include:

  • A fuzzy feeling on your teeth.
  • Bad breath (halitosis) that doesn’t go away.
  • Red, swollen gums that bleed after brushing.

What causes plaque on teeth?

Tooth plaque forms when bacteria in your mouth mix with sugary or starchy foods like milk, juice, soft drinks, bread, pasta and fruit. These bacteria release acids that break down carbohydrates in food and drinks. If you don’t brush your teeth soon after eating or drinking, the combination of bacteria, acids and carbohydrates can mix into a sticky, colorless film called plaque.


What are the complications of dental plaque?

If you don’t brush and floss daily, plaque can harden into tartar. Only a dental professional can remove tartar. Extreme dental plaque and tartar can lead to:

Diagnosis and Tests

How can I tell if I have dental plaque?

If your teeth look or feel fuzzy, you probably have plaque. To find out for sure, schedule an appointment with a dentist. They can check your teeth and gums and recommend any necessary treatment.


Management and Treatment

How do dentists treat plaque?

During a dental checkup, a dentist or hygienist will use special instruments to remove plaque and tartar from your teeth. They may also recommend:

  • Dental sealants to keep plaque from forming on the chewing surfaces of your teeth.
  • Dry mouth treatments to increase saliva production.
  • Fluoride treatments to slow the growth of plaque-causing bacteria and reduce your risk of tooth decay.
  • Prescription toothpaste or antibacterial mouthwash.


How can I reduce dental plaque?

To reduce plaque, visit your dentist regularly and practice good oral hygiene.

Here’s how to remove plaque from teeth:

  • Floss daily. Floss once a day with dental floss to get rid of food and plaque stuck between teeth. Studies show that flossing before brushing teeth removes more plaque.
  • Brush twice a day. Brush your teeth for two minutes with a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Brush at least twice a day and preferably after every meal.
  • Chew sugarless gum. If you can’t brush soon after eating or drinking, chew sugar-free gum. Choose a kind that has the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance.
  • Choose healthy foods. Cut back on sugary, starchy foods and drinks. Instead, choose nutritious foods and snacks such as plain yogurt, cheese, raw vegetables or fruit.
  • See your dentist. Get dental checkups and cleanings at least twice a year.
  • Use mouthwash. Rinse daily with an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription antiseptic mouthwash.

Outlook / Prognosis

What happens if plaque is not removed?

If you don’t remove plaque through regular dental cleanings and daily brushing and flossing, it can cause serious dental conditions like cavities or gum disease. Proper oral hygiene and maintenance can help you prevent these issues.

Living With

How often should I see my dentist?

You should see your dentist for teeth cleanings at regular intervals. Some people need cleanings every six months. Others may need more frequent visits. Your dentist can let you know what type of cleaning schedule is best for your needs.

If you develop any new concerns between your dental cleanings, call your dentist to schedule a checkup. They can examine your teeth to see if anything’s changed.

Additional Common Questions

Can hardened plaque fall off?

If dental plaque turns into tartar, it’s very difficult to remove. But sometimes little bits of tartar can break off, especially if you brush too hard.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Everyone gets dental plaque. It’s just something that happens after we consume certain foods and beverages. It usually doesn’t cause issues unless you let it build up on your teeth over time. To avoid serious oral health conditions associated with dental plaque, visit your dentist regularly and practice good oral hygiene at home. This includes brushing and flossing every day. Keeping your teeth free from plaque significantly reduces your risk for cavities, gum disease and other harmful conditions.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 05/10/2023.

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