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What is dental plaque?

Thursday - 12.14.2017

You know that good dental hygiene, including regular brushing and flossing, is an important part of preventing cavities, decay, and other tooth problems. You probably have even heard about the importance of removing plaque from your teeth. But what is plaque? Where does it come from? What does it do? 

It’s Alive!

What is plaque?

Flossing doesn’t just remove crumbs caught between your teeth. It also removes tiny bacteria living there.

If there’s anything that should inspire you to brush your teeth more consistently, it’s the idea of tiny living things growing on your teeth. And guess what? That’s just what plaque is.

Dental plaque is what’s known as a biofilm. Biofilms are sticky coatings made of microorganisms that adhere to each other and to a surface. In the case of dental plaque, the microorganisms are bacteria that inhabit your mouth. 

How Plaque Grows

Plaque is always forming on your teeth. The process works like this:

  • First, a layer of saliva, called the dental pellicle, forms on the surface of the teeth.
  • Soon, bacteria begin to bind themselves to the pellicle. 
  • Once attached, the bacteria begin to multiply, spreading to other parts of the mouth.
  • The bacteria begin to form microcolonies, and they secrete a protective coating known as the slime layer.
  • The microcolonies grow larger and more complex.
  • The film develops its own rudimentary circulatory system. 

The only way to interrupt the cycle is by brushing the plaque off of your teeth. And don’t underestimate the importance of flossing as well. Even if your teeth are perfectly straight, the surfaces on the sides of your teeth are covered by other teeth, and your toothbrush’s bristles can’t reach in-between them. Flossing is the only way to remove plaque from these areas. If your teeth are crooked, you may have even more overlapping tooth surfaces that require plaque removal.

What Happens When Plaque is Not Removed?

Tools for removing plaque and tartar.

If you don’t remove plaque with your toothbrush, your dentist may need stronger tools to get the job done.

 If you don’t remove the dental plaque from your teeth, the bacteria have free reign to continue to grow. They feed on the same food particles and beverages that you put in your mouth and convert sugars and starches into enamel-eroding acids. 

Over time, the plaque that’s not removed can harden. This happens when the plaque absorbs minerals that are in your saliva. This harder, more difficult to remove plaque has a different name: tartar. While brushing and flossing can clean the plaque off of your teeth, tartar is a more intractable problem. Plaque is sticky, but soft enough to come off on your toothbrush or floss. Tartar usually needs to be removed with special tools at your dentist’s office. 

Plaque and tartar not only form on the visible surfaces of the teeth, they also form just below the gumline. If you don’t regularly brush and floss, the plaque and tartar that build up under your gums can eventually cause gum disease. This is a serious problem, as gum disease is linked to several dangerous health problems, like heart disease and strokes. 

You can fight plaque by brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing at least once daily, as well as with regular visits to your dentist. 

Topics: Oral Hygiene, Blog