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What Is Dental Plaque? - Definition, Causes & Removal

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Learn what dental plaque is, how it forms, how it affects your teeth and gums, and how to remove it before it causes tooth decay or oral gum disease. Dental plaque is a soft colorless accumulation of bacteria on teeth, and it can cause serious health problems.

Attack of Dental Plaque

Dental plaque is a colorless, soft buildup of bacteria on your teeth, resulting in a 'fuzzy' feeling on the surface of each tooth. These bacteria become troublesome when they are not properly removed through regular brushing and flossing. What do they do? They feed off the sugar in your food, producing acid in the process. This acid degrades tooth enamel, causing cavities. Multiple layers of plaque can harden, forming tartar. These deposits can cause cavities, gingivitis, periodontitis, and in extreme cases, tooth loss.

What is Dental Plaque?

Dental plaque is a soft layer of proteins and bacteria (called a biofilm) that accumulate on the surface of teeth in between brushing and flossing. Because teeth do not shed on their own, the body cannot naturally remove plaque on its own, and the bacterial community on the teeth can be the most diverse community found on the body! If you think about it, your skin sheds millions of cells a day, giving germs a one-way ticket off the body, but on your teeth? No such luck. Saliva isn't always enough to sweep the tooth gunk away. If not removed properly, dental plaque begins to harden within 48 hours, forming the hard substance tartar (also called calculus) in 7 to 10 days. This is the stuff your dental hygienist has to chip away at, and it is significantly harder to remove.

Dental Plaque and Tartar Accumulation on Teeth
Dental plaque and tartar buildup

Causes of Dental Plaque

Everyone produces plaque, but not all plaque causes gum disease. A combination of electrostatic forces and van der Waals forces cause plaque to adhere (stick) to the tooth's surface. Bacteria may reproduce on the surface of the teeth, increasing in density, compounding the development of plaque (sounds gross, huh?). The mouth provides a favorable environment for the bacteria to thrive. The bacteria ferment the sugar in food, converting the sugars to acids that cause demineralization (decay) of the tooth. The bacteria that make up the plaque are diverse, and some are more prone to causing gum disease than others.

Additionally, plaque-associated gum disease increases with poor oral hygiene habits, smoking, a weakened immune system, and diabetes. Without adequate plaque removal, the gums may become inflamed and diseased (ouch). Mild gingivitis causes the gums to look slightly red and swollen. Moderate gingivitis results in discomfort, pain, and bleeding gums after brushing and flossing. Severe gingivitis, called periodontitis, results in bad breath, bad taste, difficulty eating, and possible tooth loss.

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