The Difference Between Tartar and Plaque

Written By Dr. Kyle Griffith

I get it!  You’re at your dental cleaning and you hear words like tartar, plaque, calculus, probing depths, attachment loss, gingivitis, and periodontitis.  We dentists and hygienists routinely speak a totally different language.  At the end of all of this, your teeth are clean but you’re confused about what is truly going on with the health of your mouth. Let’s go through these words and break them down to their most simple terms so you can make healthy choices. 

  • Plaque: A thick layer of bacteria on the teeth.  It is usually white to light yellow in color and soft.  It will scrape off with your fingernail.  If too much plaque develops, it can lead to cavities or an infection in the gums.
  • Tartar (a.k.a. calculus):Thick, hard, rock-like deposits laid down by the bacteria. Think:  coral reef.  If too much tartar/calculus develops, it can make it easier for the bacteria in your mouth to cause cavities or infections in the gums.
  • Probing Depths:  The gums around the teeth form a little trough around the teeth.  Think of a moat around a medieval castle.  A bacterial infection of this tissue trough will erode the base of the trough and increase its depth.  The deeper the trough, the easier it is for the bacteria to hide and the harder it is for you to keep clean.  In general, the deeper the gum trough, the more damage the bacteria have created.
  • Attachment Loss:  This is a fancy term to describe the overall destruction to the gums.  Bottom line: Any attachment loss is bad.
  • Gingivitis:  This is a dental term for an infection in the gums.  If left untreated, the bacteria will eventually start to erode the bone around the teeth.
  • Periodontitis:  This term describes an infection in the gums and bone surrounding the teeth.  Things are serious when you have periodontitis. It can lead to loose teeth, missing teeth, and the overall infection stresses your immune system.  Nothing good comes from periodontitis!

Dentistry can be confusing and I’ll admit, as dental professionals, sometimes we don’t make it easy to understand.  At the end of the day, if your dentist or hygienist has talked to you about some of these terms, they are concerned for your overall health.  That is really what it’s all about.  We want to see our family of patients be as healthy as possible. 

If you’re confused by any other dental terminology, please don’t hesitate to contact one of the 58 Dental team members.  We can help to clarify any or all of the dental gibberish you’ve heard over the years.

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Tony F
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