Plaque & tartar

Plaque and tartar provide the ideal environment in which bacteria thrive, causing gum disease and tooth decay. Keeping plaque and tartar at bay with good dental hygiene is key to oral health.


Plaque is the cause of tooth decay and gum disease. It is a sticky film made up of a variety of bacteria that coats the teeth. It gives teeth the familiar ‘furry’ feeling that often prompts us to brush and floss our teeth. 

Plaque develops when the residue from foods containing sugars and starches remain on the teeth to feed the bacteria. The bacteria produce acids after digesting these carbohydrates. The acids dissolve tooth enamel to form cavities.

The body’s attempt to fight this cocktail of bacteria causes inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) and more deep-seated diseases (periodontal diseases) of the soft tissue around the teeth.


Tartar is a hardened (calcified) form of plaque. It is also known as calculus. It develops when plaque is left on the teeth for a long period of time without removal by brushing or flossing. Tartar can develop both above and below the gum line. Tartar itself is not directly harmful but encourages plaque formation and interferes with oral hygiene.

While plaque can be removed easily with regular, thorough brushing and flossing, tartar requires the attention of a dentist or dental hygienist.

Before and after the treatment of dental tartar

Oral health

You can remove plaque and prevent tartar build-up by brushing and flossing regularly. Visit your dentist or dental hygienist regularly (every 6 - 12 months) to check for any build-up of tartar, and have it removed.

Tartar removal is a straightforward procedure

A special instrument (either a machine or a hand instrument) is used to remove tartar from the tooth surface. This process is known as scaling. The main areas concentrated on are below the gum line, behind and between teeth.

If scaling hasn’t been done for a while, the person may experience some mild discomfort and bleeding as a result of the scaling. This is because the gums are already inflamed as a result of the tartar build-up. Scaling will take away the cause of the inflammation and help to clear it up. The next time the teeth are scaled, much less discomfort and bleeding can be expected.

Credits: Reviewed by Drs Geoffrey Tompkins and Alison Meldrun, School of Dentistry, Otago University, October 2009. Updated June 2014 by Health Navigator.