What Is The Difference Between Tartar And Plaque?

Posted on: 2 April 2015

Some dental patients may be under the impression that tartar and plaque are the same thing.

It's common knowledge that these two substances can build up on the teeth and harm teeth and gums. However, the significant differences between these substances (and how they are removed from the teeth) are not widely understood.

The following is an explanation on how tartar and plaque differ:


Tartar is a hard substance that is typically brownish yellow in color. It is a porous material that can develop along a patient's gum line. While tartar has characteristics that are distinct from those of plaque, tartar comes from plaque. Tartar is the result of plaque building up over time and coming into contact with minerals in the saliva. 

The porous nature of tartar makes it easy for bacteria to build up and wreak havoc on the teeth. Tartar is a key cause of dental conditions such as cavities and gum disease. Tartar that is left on the teeth will typically continue to accumulate.


Unlike tartar, plaque is a sticky and soft material. It is composed of a mix of saliva and food particles. Like tartar, plaque tends to form around a patient's gum line, and it can harbor bacteria. It is also often responsible for the development of cavities and gum disease.

One of the most harmful aspects of plaque is that it tends to be acidic. Acidity is known to attack the enamel of the teeth and cause it to wear away. Worn out enamel leaves a tooth more susceptible to cavities. 

Plaque can also cause the gums to become irritated and bleed. Gums that have been severely damaged by plaque buildup may begin to pull back from the teeth. This could lead to tooth loss and generally detracts from a patient's appearance.

Differences in treatment

It's easier for dentists to remove plaque than it is to remove tartar. Patients themselves can do a pretty good job of removing plaque with a thorough brushing, especially if they use an electric toothbrush. 

A dentist, like Ann L Ortega DDS, can remove tarter through scaling, but it's not so easy to remove tartar if it has developed below the patient's gum line. In this case, surgery might be necessary for tartar removal. 

Of course, prevention is the best means of dealing with both tartar and plaque. Brushing and flossing twice daily is usually enough to keep both of these harmful substances under control.