What is plaque?

Plaque explained

Plaque is a soft, sticky film that builds up on your teeth and contains millions of bacteria. The bacteria in plaque cause tooth decay and gum disease if they are not removed regularly through brushing and flossing.

When you eat, the bacteria in plaque use the sugars in your food to produce acids that eat away at the tooth enamel. Repeated attacks cause the enamel to break down, eventually resulting in a cavity (or hole) in the tooth surface.

Plaque that is not removed daily by brushing and flossing between teeth can eventually harden into tartar. Brushing and flossing become more difficult as tartar collects at the gum line. As the tartar, plaque and bacteria continue to increase, the gum tissue can become red, swollen and possibly bleed when you brush your teeth. This is called gingivitis, an early stage of gum (periodontal) disease.

Gingivitis is reversible with good oral hygiene and professional treatment; however, if left untreated, gingivitis can advance into periodontitis. Periodontitis, a more severe form of gum disease, occurs when bacterial infection causes your gums and the bone supporting the teeth to break down. Your gums may begin to recede, pulling back from the teeth. In the worst cases, the bone supporting the teeth is destroyed and can lead to tooth loss.

Fighting back against plaque

Plaque is colorless and difficult to see. Heavy plaque deposits can be easier to see and may look like a thick white deposit or food stuck to the teeth. If you're not sure if you see plaque on your teeth, you can use a disclosing tablet (found at your local pharmacy) or you can rinse with a few drops of food coloring in two ounces of water. The disclosing tablets or solution will temporarily stain the plaque so you can see it more easily. You can then brush and floss until the stain is gone.

Since plaque is constantly growing in your mouth, the best way to remove it and to prevent tartar build-up is to brush and floss your teeth every day.

  • Brush your teeth twice a day, using a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste to remove plaque from tooth surfaces and protect your teeth from decay.
  • Clean between teeth daily (preferably before bedtime) with floss or an interdental cleaner to remove plaque from the places where your toothbrush can’t reach. Flossing is essential to preventing gum disease.
  • Since plaque is a sticky substance, you must brush and floss to help remove it. Mouth rinses alone will not provide enough plaque removal to keep your teeth and gums healthy.
  • Eat a balanced diet and limit between-meal snacks, which can provide more sugar for the bacteria in plaque to convert into decay-causing acids.
  • Visit your dentist at least once a year for professional cleanings and oral exams.
Information courtesy of the Academy of General Dentistry and the American Dental Association.
Last updated: March 2012

The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.

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