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What Is a Pellicle?

A woman getting a pellicle removed.
A dental hygienist can use abrasion to remove pellicles.
All tooth enamel is covered with pellicles.
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  • Written By: Sara Schmidt
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2014
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A dental pellicle is a deposit of organic film made from protein that forms on the surface tooth enamel. Forming just seconds after a tooth cleaning, pellicles are created from the selective absorption of saliva elements onto the surface of the teeth. Though a normal biological function, this formation is the first step of plaque development.

Literally considered the "skin" of the teeth, pellicles are also known as salivary acquired pellicles, acquired pellicles, and enamel pellicles. Though the exact composition, as well as structure, remains unknown, scientists know that pellicles are made up of protein components such as lysozyme, immunoglobulin A, amylase, proline-filledproteins and salivary mucins. All tooth surfaces are covered with pellicles, which are all later colonized by bacteria.

The natural development of a pellicle is intended to protect the teeth from acids. However, it also provides a means for bacteria to latch onto the teeth. Bacterias that may attach to the pellicle include Actinomyces viscosus, Streptococcus sanguis, and Streptococcus mutans. Rather than attaching to minerals within teeth, microbes adhere to the pellicles. Considered the major founders of dental plaque, these bacteria interact with pellicle components, creating a conducive climate for plaque creation.

Pellicles are not alive, and do not respond to bacteria. This makes it likely that bacteria latch onto them by feeding, which may account for the ridges, or a scalloped appearance, in the pellicles. In extreme cases, bacteria can consume all of the pellicles a patient has on his or her teeth.

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Though firmly attached to the teeth, pellicles may be removed through abrasion. This is usually accomplished if a dentist or hygienist provides a considerably thorough polishing, or uses a dental burr, which is a type of drill bit for a dental drill. Normal tooth brushing will normally not cause enough abrasion to remove a pellicle. Even after removal, usually pellicles will simply reform within two hours.

Normally very thin, pellicles may occasionally be thick in some places. Subject to wear and tear, they are typically thinest on the occlusal surfaces of the teeth where grinding and chewing occur. As a clear coating typically beneath plaque, a pellicle is not visible to the naked eye; however, it can still be seen. Dentists may have their patients use a solution composed of disclosing materials to make a pellicle visible. It can then be seen as a light stain on the surface of the patient's teeth.

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