Tartar is hardened dental plaque. Without proper oral hygiene, tartar can build up on your teeth and lead to gum disease and other oral health issues. Only a dentist or hygienist can remove tartar. You can’t remove it with brushing and flossing alone.


Tooth without tartar vs. tooth with tartar buildup.
Tartar (dental calculus) is hardened plaque. You can’t remove it with brushing and flossing alone.

What is tartar?

Tartar is hardened dental plaque that can form on your teeth, both above and below your gum line. Everybody gets plaque. But unless you remove it with proper oral hygiene, plaque can harden into tartar.

Unlike plaque, you can’t remove tartar with brushing and flossing. A dentist or dental hygienist must remove it during a professional dental cleaning.

Another name for tartar is dental calculus.

What is tartar made of?

Tartar mostly contains dead bacteria that have mineralized, mixed with a small amount of mineralized proteins from your saliva (spit).

Specifically, tartar consists of these minerals:

  • Calcium phosphate.
  • Calcium carbonate.
  • Magnesium phosphate.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of tartar on teeth?

If you start to develop tartar on your teeth, you might notice:

Does tartar smell bad?

Yes, tartar usually has an unpleasant odor. It can also cause small pockets to form in the areas between your teeth and gums. Bacteria and food debris can get trapped there, resulting in bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth.

What causes mouth tartar?

When you don’t routinely remove plaque from your teeth, it can turn into tartar. So, tartar is usually a result of poor oral hygiene.

Risk factors for tartar

You’re more likely to develop plaque and tartar if you:

  • Don’t brush or floss as often as you should. (At minimum, you should brush twice a day and floss once a day.)
  • Consume lots of sugary foods and drinks like bread, pasta and soda.
  • Smoke or use other tobacco products.
  • Wear braces.
  • Have dry mouth (xerostomia).


What are the complications of having tartar on your teeth?

If you don’t remove tartar from your teeth, you’re much more likely to develop:

Diagnosis and Tests

How do dentists diagnose tartar?

A dentist can tell you whether you have tartar buildup during a routine dental examination. If they suspect you have cavities, gum disease or other issues as a result, they may also:

  • Take dental X-rays to see if you have cavities or bone loss.
  • Measure the depth of any pockets around your teeth to see if you have signs of gum disease.


Management and Treatment

How do you treat tartar?

The only way to effectively treat tartar is to see a dentist or hygienist. They’ll remove the tartar safely using a combination of special instruments.

It might be tempting to remove tartar from your teeth without a dentist, but this can actually damage your teeth and make you more susceptible to cavities and other issues.

Depending on the amount of tartar buildup you have, your dentist may recommend:

  • Dental cleaning.
  • Gum disease treatments.

Dental cleaning

Routine dental cleanings are the best way to keep your mouth and teeth healthy. During a cleaning, a dental hygienist removes plaque and tartar from your teeth using special instruments. They’ll also thoroughly floss between your teeth and polish your teeth surfaces using a rubber cup and gritty toothpaste.

Many people can keep tartar at bay with cleanings every six months. But if you’re prone to cavities, gum disease or other issues, you might need cleanings more often. Ask your dentist what cleaning schedule is right for you.

Gum disease treatments

If tartar has already caused some bone loss around your teeth, your dentist may recommend gum disease treatment. These procedures remove tartar that’s trapped beneath your gum line, where brushing and flossing can’t reach.

Common gum disease treatments include:


How can I prevent tartar buildup?

To avoid issues like cavities and gum disease, it’s best to stop tartar from forming in the first place. To help prevent tartar buildup on your teeth:

  • Brush your teeth two to three times every day. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. (When you buy oral health products, make sure they have the American Dental Association, or ADA, Seal of Acceptance. This means they’ve passed rigorous tests for safety and effectiveness.)
  • Floss between your teeth once every day. You can use traditional dental floss or tiny brushes that go in between your teeth. Ask your dentist or hygienist for specific product recommendations.
  • Swish with an alcohol-free, antibacterial mouthwash twice a day. This helps kill oral bacteria that cause plaque and tartar buildup.
  • Avoid smoking and other tobacco products. Research shows that people who smoke or chew tobacco have a much higher risk of developing tartar.
  • Visit your dentist regularly for exams and cleanings. Brushing and flossing at home is essential for healthy teeth and gums. But you still need professional dental exams and cleanings. Many people do well with preventive visits twice a year. Others might need more frequent appointments. Ask your dentist what type of schedule is best for you.

Outlook / Prognosis

What happens if I don’t remove tartar?

If you leave tartar on your teeth, it can:

Living With

How often should I see my dentist for tartar removal?

It depends on your unique oral health needs. Some people build up plaque and tartar faster than others. Most people need cleanings every six months. But you might need them more often if you’re prone to issues like tooth decay and gum disease. Ask your dentist what type of maintenance schedule is right for you.

Additional Common Questions

Plaque vs. tartar: What’s the difference?

Dental plaque is a yellowish, sticky film. It develops when bacteria in your mouth feed on sugars in the foods you eat. Plaque feels “fuzzy” on your teeth, but you can remove it with brushing and flossing.

Tartar is hardened plaque. It might be yellowish at first, but it can turn darker over time. Tartar feels like a hard shell on your teeth. Unlike plaque, you can’t remove tartar with brushing and flossing.

Why is tartar breaking off my teeth?

Occasionally, tartar can break off your teeth when you’re eating certain foods or brushing too aggressively. When this happens, it can leave a rough or sharp area behind. It might be tempting to remove more tartar on your own. But doing this can damage your teeth and gums.

Call your dentist if you notice tartar breaking off your teeth. They can remove the remaining tartar safely and effectively.

Why do I have black tartar on my teeth?

Tartar takes on the color of whatever foods and drinks you consume. You might notice black tartar if you:

  • Smoke or use tobacco products.
  • Drink lots of tea, coffee or red wine.

Tartar beneath your gum line can also cause bleeding. When blood mixes with tartar, it can turn black.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

The best way to prevent tartar is to practice good oral hygiene. But sometimes, tartar can form despite your best efforts. If this happens, schedule a visit with a dentist right away. While tartar buildup isn’t an emergency, it’s best to remove it as soon as possible to avoid issues like cavities and gum disease.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 06/19/2023.

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