According to the National Institutes of Health, calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and 99 percent of it is stored in bones and teeth. Calcium compounds help give enamel — your teeth’s outer layer that protects against erosion, decay, and temperature sensitivity — its strength.
Enamel is the hardest substance in the body — it’s even harder than bone — and is made up of calcified tissue. Calcium buildup might refer to plaque and tartar that can collect and cause decay if left on teeth. It might also refer to problems with calcification of enamel.
Keep reading to learn about both and the impact they can have on the health of your teeth and mouth.
Plaque is a sticky, colorless film that forms on your enamel. It’s made up of bacteria from your saliva. When it interacts with the sugars and starches left on your teeth from food, it creates an acid that can erode enamel, making teeth prone to decay. Tartar is plaque that has hardened.
The best way to remove plaque and prevent tartar is to brush and floss regularly and see your dentist for periodic checkups and cleanings.
Calcium that hardens on your enamel and under and around your gumline is called tartar. Tartar forms when plaque hasn’t been removed with regular brushing and flossing. Tartar can irritate your gums, leading to:
- gum disease
- tooth decay
- bad breath
What are the symptoms of tartar?
You can actually see and feel tartar on your teeth. Signs include yellowish or brown staining on your teeth. You might notice this more in spots where you don’t thoroughly brush—for example, between teeth or on their underside. Your teeth may have a rough feel to them. Tartar can cause your gums to become inflamed and sensitive.
What are treatment options for tartar?
Tartar is an extremely hard material — you can’t remove it on your own with normal brushing. You’ll need to see a professional for a cleaning. Preventing tartar buildup in the first place is key. To keep it at bay, practice good dental hygiene:
- Avoid sugary and starchy foods that help plaque grow.
- Brush twice a day.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
- Floss once a day.
- See your dentist twice a year for a professional dental cleaning and checkup.
- Use a tartar-control toothpaste if your dentist recommends it.
Hypocalcification is a condition where your tooth’s enamel has an insufficient amount of calcium. When this happens, the enamel still covers the tooth’s surface but parts can be thin and weak, giving teeth an opaque or chalky appearance.
Without strong, protective enamel, teeth are more susceptible to decay. In one study, roughly of the subjects had hypocalcification of their enamel.
What causes hypocalcification?
Many enamel defects often start before birth, as a baby’s teeth are developing in the womb. Hypocalcification — which can be seen in baby as well as adult teeth — is caused by a defect in the formation of highly sensitive cells called ameloblasts. These cells secrete proteins that form tooth enamel. According to research, most cases of hypocalcification have no known cause. In other cases, it may be related to:
- Genetics. Amelogenesis imperfecta is a group of rare, inherited disorders that affect tooth enamel and can result in hypocalcification.
- Illness or trauma. Some researchers speculate that enamel defects like hypocalcification can occur due to a high fever of an expectant mom during pregnancy or even result from a difficult birth.
- Certain disorders. One study found that those with asthma and epilepsy were more likely to have enamel defects than others. One theory for the increased prevalence is that the medications used to treat these conditions can impact enamel.
- Fluoride. Dental fluorosis, or the ingestion of too much fluoride during early childhood, can produce spotted, mottled teeth.
What are the symptoms of hypocalcification?
Hypocalcified teeth typically have:
- white, yellow, or brown spots on the surface
- a chalky or creamy appearance
- a weakened structure, making them prone to cavities and breakage
- sensitivity to hot and cold foods and drinks
The first order of business is strengthening your teeth. Depending on the degree of hypocalcification and where the tooth is located, your doctor may recommend any of the following:
- fluoride treatments every few months to strengthen the tooth
- glass ionomer cements bonded to the surface to cover discoloration which tend to hold better on the tooth’s structure than composite resin, another popular bonding tool
- crowns to fully encapsulate the hypocalcified tooth
- in-office bleaching to help lighten the discoloration, which works best in mild cases
Hypocalcification is best treated by a professional since it affects the structural integrity of your teeth. If you have a very mild case, you might ask your dentist about the benefits of using:
- toothpastes that help replenish calcium
- an at-home teeth bleaching system
What are the differences between hypocalcification, hypomineralization, and hypercalcification?
Hypocalcification is a defect in the enamel caused by insufficient amount of minerals, either in a baby or permanent tooth. It can be caused by local or systemic interference in enamel mineralizations.
Hypomineralization is a developmental condition resulting in enamel defects in first molars and incisors of permanent teeth.
Both hypomineralization and hypocalcification cause soft spots and involve insufficient calcium in the enamel.
Hypercalcification of teeth occurs when there’s too much calcium in your enamel, sometimes caused by an infection during tooth formation. It can look like hard white spots on teeth.
Q: Given those different enamel defects, what can a person do to strengthen their enamel?
A: There are several ways to strengthen your enamel:
- limit sugary and acidic foods
- drink acidic beverages through a straw
- use dental products containing fluoride; your dentist can also prescribe stronger concentrations of fluoride if needed
- brush twice a day for 2 minutes and floss daily
- wear a mouthguard if you grind or clench your jaw
- drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet
Since most cases of hypocalcification have an unknown cause and often develop before birth, preventing the condition is difficult. You can, however, prevent plaque and tartar buildup on your teeth by:
- getting regular dental care
- brushing twice a day
- flossing once a day
- eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
Tooth enamel defects are not uncommon. Over- or undercalcification of enamel, which often occurs as teeth form, can produce spotted and sometimes weakened teeth. Plaque and tartar, if left to buildup on teeth, can eat away at your enamel.
If you have white, yellow, or brown spots on your teeth, talk to your dentist. There are effective techniques to remove or camouflage spots and, more importantly, to strengthen teeth and keep your smile healthy.