What is Dental Plaque?

What is Dental Plaque?

what is dental plaque?  This photo shows a thick layer of plaque and tartar on the bottom teeth.Dental plaque is a sticky, bacteria rich film that forms on the surface of your teeth.  This “biofilm” is actually home to a thriving community of microbial life that can – if not controlled – cause a spectrum of dental problems.

The human mouth is actually a perfect incubator for bacteria.  It’s warm. There is consistent moisture, nutrition, and oxygen.  In fact, dental plaque is known to be the most diverse biofilm in the human body, hosting hundreds of unique bacterial species right at the tip of your tongue.

So How Does Dental Plaque Develop?

What is dental plaque?  This graphic shows the layers of a tooth.  Plaque forms on the outermost layer called the pellicle layer.To better understand how dental plaque develops, let’s first take a look at the anatomy of a tooth.  In this illustration, we see that the outermost layer of the tooth is called enamel.  Tooth enamel is a calcium rich, crystalline tissue that gives your teeth their hard, white appearance and smooth texture.

What this illustration does not show is there is actually another layer on top of the enamel called the pellicle layer.  Pellicle is an invisible protein film that coats the surface of each tooth.  On one hand, the pellicle is somewhat protective against acid erosion.  On the other hand, bacteria can easily attach to the pellicle – and this is how plaque formation begins.  It only takes a few minutes for fledgling bacterial colonies to form.  These bacterial colonies breakdown sugars in the saliva which forms the sticky matrix of the biofilm that we call Dental Plaque.

Plaque Causes Most Dental Diseases

bacteria surrounding a tooth form dental plaqueDental Plaque is the precursor to most dental diseases, particularly tooth decay and gum disease.  We have actually written two separate articles that describe the processes by which dental plaque can develop into disease and infection:

1) Gum Disease:  did you know gum disease is the leading cause of tooth loss among adults?  Find out more…

2) Tooth Decay:  this article describes how dental plaque causes tooth decay

Plaque Vs. Tartar – Is there a difference?

Dental Plaque must be removed by your dental hygienist.Although these words are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a distinction between plaque and tartar.  Dental plaque is soft and can be removed with routine brushing and flossing.  But if plaque is not removed, it will continuously absorb minerals from the saliva and harden into the hard, yellow build-up that we call tartar.  Tartar cannot be removed with a toothbrush and needs to be scraped off the tooth with a dental probe.  One of the primary objectives of a dental cleaning with your hygienist is to remove any tartar build-up that has that has formed.