Written by Valencia Higuera | Published on November 24, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on November 24, 2014


You’ve probably heard about tooth cavities, but another problem might be lurking in between your teeth. Tooth cavities don't form out of nowhere. Instead, cavities start with a buildup of plaque on your teeth.

Dental plaque is a sticky film that plays a role in a variety of oral conditions. This clear substance forms on your teeth each day. In fact, it starts to form as soon as you finish eating a meal or snacking. It’s mostly on your teeth, but can also form under the gum line.

Unfortunately, plaque is one of your mouth’s worst enemies. This substance not only creates a film over your teeth, it slowly damages or eats away at your tooth enamel. Enamel is the hard surface of your teeth that protects your teeth from decay. If you’re unable to control plaque, your enamel can’t do its job. Your risk for cavities increase as your enamel is damaged. But the question remains, what causes dental plaque?

Causes of Plaque

There are several explanations for the formation of plaque on your teeth. Basically, plaque needs bacteria, acid, saliva, and food particles to form. You may think your mouth is clean and healthy. But when you eat sugary foods or carbohydrates, these foods mix with the natural bacteria in your mouth and create an acid. This acid mixes with saliva and food particles resulting in a sticky substance called plaque.

Dental plaque is clear, so it's hard to see it on your teeth. If you want to do a plaque check, all you need to do is rub your tongue along your teeth, especially the back of your teeth. Usually, plaque makes the teeth feel rough or slimy.

But although plaque occurs naturally, you can reduce this sticky substance and improve the overall health of your mouth.

Treatment and Prevention of Plaque

It’s important to remove plaque before it starts to damage the enamel on your teeth. Because plaque sticks to teeth, the only way to remove it is by brushing your teeth on a regular basis. The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends brushing at least twice a day for at least two minutes. You should also floss once per day to remove food particles stuck between your teeth. It doesn’t take long for plaque to form after eating, so make every effort to brush after each meal or snack. The more you brush, the less plaque in your mouth.

Electric toothbrushes have been proven to be most effective in removing plaque, says the British Dental Health Foundation. These toothbrushes have bristles that move in two directions, which improves the cleaning action. Make sure you schedule regular dental cleanings every six months. Your dentist can examine your teeth and take X-ray images about once a year. Either your dentist or a dental hygienist removes traces of plaque and tartar on your teeth using special dental tools.

Plaque doesn't go away, but certain habits and good oral hygiene can prevent a buildup. Along with regular brushing, flossing, and dental visits, you can reduce plaque by eating a balanced diet. Reduce your intake of sugar and carbohydrates. Foods to avoid or limit include:

  • candy
  • cookies
  • ice cream
  • potatoes
  • bread

You can also reduce plaque by limiting snacking between meals, especially during times when you're not able to brush your teeth.

Complications of Plaque

Even though everyone has plaque, it isn't a minor dental issue. Plaque that isn’t removed is a primary cause of gum disease (periodontal disease). In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) reports that half of Americans have periodontal disease. Other complications of plaque buildup include:

  • tooth decay
  • tooth loss
  • gingivitis
  • bad breath
  • teeth discoloration

The longer plaque remains on your teeth or between your teeth, the harder it is to remove yourself. Hard plaque that you can’t remove at home is called tartar. Only a dentist or a dental hygienist can remove tarter.

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