What Is Tartar? A Common Problem For Your Teeth

Tartar Enhance

Tartar on teeth is a common problem that dentists and hygienists see every day, but few people know what it is or why it is a problem. The truth is tartar is not only a sign of poor hygiene habits but also the beginning stage of other more severe problems, like gum disease.

What is Tartar?

Tartar (sometimes called calculus) is a rough, porous mineral buildup that forms on your teeth at or below the gum line. Tartar forms when plaque stays on your teeth and hardens due to the salt and minerals in our food. But unlike plaque, which is soft and can be hard to see, tartar takes on a yellowish or brownish color.

Roughly 70-80% of all adults have tartar to some degree. Younger children and older adults are more at risk, as are smokers, people with braces or fixed retainers, and people with dry mouths.

Why Tartar is an Oral Health Problem to Take Seriously

While tartar is not immediately harmful or dangerous, it can create a number of problems down the road if you do not take care of it:

  • Tartar gives dental plaque more surface area on which to stick, which in turn gives bacteria a nice place to grow.
  • That same bacteria can, in turn, cause cavities and irritate your gums, eventually leading to gum disease.
  • Because tartar is porous, like a granite countertop, it absorbs stains easily. Coffee, tea, and cigarette smoke will be the most noticeable.
  • Tartar can make it harder to brush and floss as you should. This can lead to even more cavities and tooth decay.

What Can You Do About Tartar on Teeth?

Most people can feel or see tartar on their own teeth when it’s getting pretty bad (like the picture above), and if they take the time to find it.  You’ll notice a chalky white or yellowish-white substance on your teeth that does not come off easily, and usually on the bottom front teeth. More often, people find out about tartar from their dentist during a regular check-up. The same goes for finding out about tartar on children’s teeth.

Dealing with tartar, then, requires two strategies: removing existing tartar, and preventing future tartar and plaque buildup on teeth.

Removing existing tartar on teeth is best done by a dentist or dental hygienist. He or she will use special instruments to remove the tartar from your teeth both above and below the gum line. This process is called scaling. What you see in the “after” side of the photo above is what the teeth look like after scaling.

Preventing future tartar and plaque buildup on teeth is easy if you adopt good oral health habits:

Brushing at least twice a day removes the plaque that creates tartar. Be sure to brush those hard-to-reach places behind your teeth and on your rear molars.

Try an electronic or powered toothbrush. This was a game-changer for me.  I am especially a fan of sonic toothbrushes. These can provide a bit more power behind the bristles, and are especially good options for older adults and young children who might not have the full strength to brush well.

Use toothpaste with tartar control (with fluoride). These are readily available in most stores that sell toothpaste. The ingredient pyrophosphate helps to prevent plaque formation on the teeth.  However, it can cause gum irritation in some people, so stop using it if you feel a burning or itching sensation after use, or if you develop inflamed gums you didn’t have before.

Use a rinse. A good rinse will help kill the bacteria in plaque, especially in hard-to-reach places. Look for a rinse that says “antiseptic” on the label. Listerine, Crest Pro-Health, ACT, and Rejuvenate are all proven to improve oral health.

Floss. Yes, it can be time-consuming, but you’ll be amazed at the food and bits of tartar you remove.  Water-piks have been shown in some studies to do a better job at cleaning in between teeth than traditional floss.

Watch those snacks. The bacteria in your mouth thrive on sugary and starchy foods; this is how plaque starts. So, try to cut down on the sugar, and get in the habit of brushing after these kinds of snacks.

Visit a dentist regularly. A dental visit can reveal tartar build-up, which can give you clues as to how to brush better to prevent future tartar.

Enough with Tartar

Now you should be able to easily answer ‘what is tartar’ and better understand the risks it plays in your oral health. By removing it, your oral, as well as overall health, will benefit, as multiple studies have shown that periodontal (gum and jaw bone) disease increases the risks for stroke, heart disease, respiratory disease, osteoporosis, and even some types of cancers.  This is due to the chronic (or constant) inflammation that is occurring in your mouth when tartar is present, and bacteria that can enter into your system when this inflammation occurs. Tartar is unhealthy and, frankly, kind of gross. Take steps to prevent its growth, both for yourself and your loved ones.

Yours in better dental health,

Dr. A

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