What is dental plaque?

Dental plaque is a colorless, sticky film constantly forming on your teeth and gums and is made up of millions of bacteria that process sugars and other carbohydrates from your diet into acids that can cause tooth decay and gum disease.

Plaque starts forming again immediately after you are done brushing, and even after a professional dental cleaning. That’s one reason why it is so important to remove it thoroughly every day.

How does dental plaque build-up on teeth?

Plaque formation is normal and ongoing. It will continue to build-up unless it is removed by brushing and flossing. If plaque remains on your teeth for a long period of time, the minerals in your saliva can harden it into tartar (calculus). Tartar cannot be brushed off and must be professionally removed.

Types of dental plaque

Dental plaque consists of bacteria, water, food, and other mouth debris. It also includes sugars, carbohydrates, proteins, and other components from saliva.

Plaque can be identified based on where it is located on your teeth:

  • Supragingival plaque is located above the gumline, on the visible surface area of your teeth.
  • Subgingival plaque forms below your gumline. It can be the most damaging because it is more difficult to notice and remove at home.

What does dental plaque look and feel like?

Dental plaque is colorless, but some foods, beverages, and medications can stain plaque and make the teeth appear discolored. Staining is usually on the tooth surface and can be removed with a professional cleaning.

Once plaque begins to build up, your tooth surface may feel fuzzy — or even rough to your tongue — if it has hardened to tartar. You may notice a soft film around the gumline that appears white to pale yellow. As it hardens into tartar, the film will feel rougher and appear more yellow.  

The bacteria in plaque are the primary cause of most common dental problems, including tooth decay and gum disease. See your dentist if you persistently have any of the following symptoms, which may indicate excess plaque or tartar:

  • A fuzzy coating on your teeth that isn’t removed by brushing
  • Tooth staining
  • Recurring bad breath (halitosis)
  • Red, swollen, or bleeding gums
  • Tooth pain or sensitivity

How do you prevent dental plaque?

It is important to remove plaque daily by brushing and cleaning in between the teeth either with daily flossing or by using a water/air flosser. This helps to prevent plaque from hardening and developing into tartar, and bacteria from forming acids on the teeth and gum tissues.

To prevent and remove plaque:

If plaque causes you recurring oral health problems, then your dentist may recommend various preventive strategies. These may include dental sealants, fluoride treatments,  periodontal treatments, better oral hygiene techniques, mouth rinses, dry mouth treatments, and other solutions.

What happens if plaque is not removed from teeth?

You will not notice damage immediately, but if plaque builds up on your teeth and below your gumline, the acid and other by-products from bacteria can weaken tooth enamel and start breaking down your tooth surface and gum tissues. This increases your risk for:

If not removed, then plaque will eventually harden and become tartar, which can only be removed by your dental hygienist or dentist. Tartar irritates the gums and makes it almost impossible to remove all plaque from around and below the gumline at home. Unless you visit the dentist for removal, this makes the development of gum disease more likely.


Dental plaque is normal and always forming in your mouth, but it is important to remove plaque through daily brushing, flossing, and regular dental visits. Find a Delta Dental dentist near you with the dentist finder tool.

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