Have you ever noticed that after a dental cleaning your teeth look sparkly and white, but over time they appear more dull and yellow? That yellowish color comes from plaque, a filmy substance made out of bacteria. Plaque accumulates on your teeth both above and below your gum line. You may find it unsightly, but what’s more, it can damage your teeth and gums if it’s not removed.
The best ways to remove plaque
The easiest way to remove plaque is to brush your teeth at least twice per day. You should use a soft toothbrush that you replace at least every three to four months, when the bristles begin to fray. You could also consider using an electric toothbrush, which can be more effective at removing plaque than a traditional toothbrush.
Floss before you brush to loosen any bits of food so you can brush them away. To floss your teeth:
- Take about 18 inches of floss, wrapping one end around each of your middle fingers.
- Hold the floss taut between your thumbs and forefingers, then gently push the floss between two teeth.
- Move the floss into a “C” shape on the side of one tooth.
- Rub the floss up and down gently, continuing to press it against your tooth. Be careful not to jerk or snap the floss.
- Repeat this process for all of your teeth, taking care to floss behind your back teeth as well.
After you’ve flossed, you should spend two minutes brushing your teeth each time. To brush your teeth:
- Put a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your toothbrush. For children, the amount of toothpaste should be about the size of a grain of rice.
- Hold your toothbrush on your teeth at a 45-degree angle to your gums.
- Move your toothbrush back and forth in short, gentle strokes the same width as each of your teeth.
- Brush all the outside surfaces, inside surfaces, and chewing surfaces of your teeth, and don’t forget your tongue.
- For the inside of your front teeth, tilt your toothbrush vertically and make small up-and-down strokes.
Unfortunately, plaque accumulates again quickly after being brushed away. Some experts recommend other at-home treatments to remove plaque buildup. These include oil pulling and baking soda treatments.
Swishing oil — usually coconut or olive oil — around in your mouth may strengthen your teeth, prevent tooth decay, soothe sore gums, and remove plaque.
To perform an “oil pull,” you swish about one tablespoon of coconut or olive oil around in your mouth for 20 to 30 minutes (much longer than you’d swish around typical mouthwash). Coconut oil is believed to be particularly beneficial because it contains fatty acids such as lauric acid, a substance with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects.
Researchers have found that people who brushed their teeth with toothpaste containing baking soda removed more plaque and had less plaque grow back over 24 hours than people who brushed their teeth with toothpaste that did not contain baking soda.
Baking soda is effective at removing plaque because it’s a natural cleanser and an abrasive, meaning it’s good for scrubbing.
How plaque causes tartar to form
Plaque buildup can have serious health consequences. The bacteria in plaque create acid by feeding on the sugars in the foods you eat, which can damage your teeth and cause cavities. The bacteria also make toxins that can aggravate your gums, leading to periodontal disease (gum disease).
When plaque on the teeth combines with the minerals in your saliva to form a hard deposit, that’s called tartar. Another name for tartar is calculus. Like plaque, tartar can form both above and below the gum line. Tartar forms a breeding ground for plaque bacteria to thrive in, allowing plaque bacteria to multiply quickly.
Unlike plaque, tartar can’t be removed by brushing or flossing. To get rid of it, you need to visit your dentist, who will use special instruments to remove it in a technique called “scale and polish.” Scaling refers to the removal or picking off of tartar from the teeth, while polishing helps smooth and shine the teeth afterwards.
How to prevent plaque and tartar from forming
The best ways to prevent plaque from forming is to stick to good dental habits. Brush your teeth for two minutes at least twice per day (ideally once in the morning and once before you go to bed), and floss at least once per day.
Regular dental appointments are also critical in preventing additional plaque and tartar buildup on your teeth. Your dentist will scrape and clean your teeth so they’re free of plaque and tartar. They may also perform a fluoride treatment, which can prevent and slow the growth of plaque bacteria and buildup of tartar on your teeth. This helps prevent tooth decay.
Research suggests that chewing gum sweetened with sorbitol or xylitol between meals can prevent plaque buildup. Be sure not to chew gum with sugar, which encourages bacteria growth on the teeth. Eating a healthy diet that’s low in added sugars, on the other hand, can limit bacteria growth on your teeth. Be sure to eat lots of fresh produce, whole grains, and lean proteins.
Mouthwash or a tool such as a dental pick, interdental brush, or dental stick can be helpful in preventing bacteria buildup between meals.
Smoking and chewing tobacco also encourage bacteria growth on the teeth. Quit using tobacco products, and don’t start if you’ve never tried them.
The bottom line
The better you take care of your teeth, the less plaque and tartar will accumulate on them. You should brush your teeth at least twice per day, and floss once, to prevent plaque buildup. Also, be sure to visit your dentist regularly for preventative care and tartar removal. Taking good care of your teeth will keep you healthy in long run.
If you think you may have a dental issue related to plaque or tartar buildup, schedule an appointment with your dentist right away. The sooner you get the dental issue addressed, the less damage it’s likely to cause and the easier (and less expensive) it will be to treat.