What is Dental Plaque?

Mary McMahon

Dental plaque is a type of biofilm, a colony of microorganisms suspended in fluid and mucus, which builds up on the teeth. When left unattended, dental plaque can cause serious oral health problems, and it can eventually develop into tartar, a mineralized form of dental plaque which is very damaging, and very difficult to remove from the teeth. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to combat dental plaque and keep the mouth healthy.

Dentists scrape away plaque during a dental cleaning.
Dentists scrape away plaque during a dental cleaning.

This buildup in the mouth is entirely natural, and it typically contains a broad cross section of the bacteria which call the mouth home. It starts as a bacterium touches down on a tooth, taking advantage of the warm, moist environment of the mouth to start multiplying and attracting additional bacteria. As the bacteria accrue, they are gummed together by mucus and the secretions emitted by some of the bacteria, creating a filmy layer on the surface of the tooth.

Dentists have specialized equipment that is designed to remove plaque and tartar from all around teeth.
Dentists have specialized equipment that is designed to remove plaque and tartar from all around teeth.

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At this stage, dental plaque is quite easy to remove; a quick sweep with a toothbrush will take most of the bacteria away, forcing them to start from scratch if they want to build up another layer of dental plaque. The dental plaque is also not very harmful at this stage. If the dental plaque is allowed to progress, however, things can get ugly.

Some brands of toothpaste help prevent dental plaque.
Some brands of toothpaste help prevent dental plaque.

In an extremely thick layer of dental plaque, the bacteria at the bottom will start to respire anaerobically, because they lack oxygen. Anaerobic respiration, in addition to being a neat survival trick, also produces acids which can eat into the surface of the teeth, causing damage. If allowed to continue growing, a dental plaque will also start to mineralize, as discussed above.

Flossing can help remove plaque that builds up on teeth.
Flossing can help remove plaque that builds up on teeth.

Dental plaque can also host harmful bacteria, including foreign invaders which might cause damage to the body. A bacterial imbalance in the body can also lead to a proliferation of harmful bacteria in the mouth, and these bacteria may start to generate odors and stains which are aesthetically unpleasant in addition to being unhealthy.

Regular visits to a dental hygienist are advised to remove stubborn dental plaque.
Regular visits to a dental hygienist are advised to remove stubborn dental plaque.

Most dentists recommend that people floss, brush, and use mouthwash regularly to remove dental plaque and to cut down on overall levels of bacteria in the mouth. Additionally, annual visits to an oral hygienist to remove stubborn dental plaque are also advised; such visits also give a dentist a chance to check on the patient's general oral health.

A dentist examines a patient's teeth for plaque.
A dentist examines a patient's teeth for plaque.
Dentists recommend using mouthwash.
Dentists recommend using mouthwash.

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Discussion Comments

Rundocuri

I think that many people end up with dental plaque because they are afraid to go to the dentist for regular cleanings. Having these done at least twice a year is very important to avoid cavities.

If you having your teeth cleaned frightens you, have a talk with your dentist. There are options available to help you get through your cleanings so you can keep your teeth looking great.

Ocelot60

Plaque is more likely to build up and cause tooth decay if you don't brush your teeth for enough time each morning and night. A good rule of thumb to follow is the brush them for at least 2 minutes up and down, side to side, and in a circular motion. Make sure you reach all of the surfaces of each tooth and don't forget to floss!

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