Whether you notice it at home, or your dentist has pointed it out, you may know that you have some tartar build up.
Read on to find out what tartar is
What Is Tartar?
Tartar is a hardened layer of mineralised plaque on the tooth.
Tartar (or calculus) is a combination of plaque products (bacteria, food debris) and minerals.
It develops from plaque, the soft whitish layer that forms your teeth.
When the plaque layer is left for too long it hardens and becomes stuck to your teeth.
Saliva is partially responsible for this, as it naturally contains electrolytes including sodium, calcium and phosphates.
These ions in your saliva will react with those in the plaque. This process is called calcification or mineralisation. The biggest mineral is tartar is calcium phosphate (which can be found in several different forms).
The diagram below shows how it forms on the tooth surface.
Another contributing factor is bacteria themselves. Calcium ions bind to bacteria causing the bacteria to die and themselves calcify.
These first develop in localised spots (the deposition phase).
Over time, these small bits of tartar grow to cover a larger area.
It takes about 2 weeks for this to form. And when it does it is very resistant to removal. Only professional cleaning by a dentist or hygienist will get rid of this build up.
Can You Remove Tartar Without Going To The Dentist?
No, you cannot remove tartar without going to the dentist.
The calculus bond to the tooth surface is very strong. It cannot be removed by toothbrushing or interdental cleaning.
When tatar forms on the tooth it is possible to break within the tartar layer so that small bits of tartar come away.
However the bond to the tooth layer is much stronger. This bond is impossible to break without using specialist techniques.
Studies have even shown the crystals of calculus to be interconnected with enamel crystals. In some cases, the two might even fuse together.
Because such strong forces are needed to break the bond between the tartar and the tooth, you risk damaging the tooth structure if you try this yourself.
This is why I recommend staying away from using DIY scrapers at home. You might have seen these advertised. Unfortunately these are mostly ineffective at removing tartar. I have reviewed ultrasonic cleaning devices and found some potential problems you need to be aware of are:
- They can damage the gums.
- They can scratch the enamel surface.
- They can damage existing dental work. This includes white composite fillings and metal fillings. They could also scratch crowns and veneers too. Scratching these surfaces will make them more prone to staining and plaque buildup.
- Such instruments bought in a shop and used at home are not sterile. Also, they cannot be cleaned effectively at home.
Can You Remove Tartar With A Dental Pick?
A dental pick can refer to a few different things:
- Wooden toothpicks. These will not remove tartar. Generally speaking, wooden toothpicks should be avoided as Dr. Chhaya Chauhan explains in this video.
- A floss holder with inbuilt toothpick, normally made from plastic. These are not strong enough to remove tartar from the tooth surface/
- Manual metal tooth scrapers. These may be similar to instruments used by dental professionals, and have sharp curved edges. Whilst these can physically remove tartar I would advise you to avoid them. This is because they can damage gums and the tooth surface when used incorrectly.
The take home message is that you can’t remove tartar with a dental pick at home.
Why Is It Important To Have Tartar Removed?
Tartar is often an indicator to your dentist that you are missing areas when cleaning at home.
And tartar itself does actually cause a couple of problems in the mouth. It is linked to gum disease, difficulty cleaning, and staining on the teeth.
Tartar is rough and more sticky than your tooth surface. You are more likely to have more bacteria stick to the tartar than to your tooth.
This will increase the amount of bacteria staying around the gum level, even after brushing and interdental cleaning. The bacteria contribute to the formation of gum disease.
This surface of a tartar is rough compared to enamel. This is more difficult to clean effectively compared to the tooth surface, so not all plaque is removed every time.
The tartar can create ledges which need to be cleaned around. The build up can also block spaces, making interdental cleaning in particular more difficult.
Tartar will pick up stains more quickly than your teeth. This is especially true if you drink lots of tea or coffee, or if you smoke.
If you notice dark stains building up around the edges of your teeth, consider a professional clean. Scaling and polishing, or air polishing, can remove the stains.
Improve your oral hygiene at home to prevent tartar building up in future.
Ways To Prevent Tartar Build Up
The most important factor for preventing tartar build up is the removal of plaque. Regularly removing plaque for your teeth will prevent the mineralisation process into tartar (calculus).
Physical removal with toothbrushing and interdental cleaning is important to disrupt the plaque biofilm layer. Make sure you are brushing twice daily for two minutes. Use an interdental cleaning method, such as interdental brushes, once per day.
See my article on how to remove plaque for more advice.
Toothpaste also plays an important role in preventing tartar build up. It has abrasives to help remove plaque.
Toothpaste can also have ingredients added that prevent tartar formation. This includes:
- Pyrophosphate, which bonds to calcium in the plaque to prevent the mineralisation process. It is a crystal growth inhibitor.
- Sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP) bonds to multiple calcium ions in the plaque, but will only work on the surface layer.
- Zinc salts (e.g., zinc citrate, zinc chloride, zinc lactate) replace calcium in the plaque to prevent tartar formation. It is a crystal growth inhibitor. Segreto et al. studied a toothpaste containing 0.5% zinc citrate, and found that users had 13.7% less calculus after three months compared to a regular toothpaste.
- Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent with proven effectiveness against calculus formation. At present, no commercially available toothpastes contain triclosan.
Take Home Messages
Tartar is a hard, calcified substance. It develops when plaque is not removed effectively.
You cannot safely remove tartar at home. A dental professional can use scaling tools to remove it without damaging your gums or tooth surface.
You can prevent tartar build up by having a good oral hygiene routine at home. Ensure you are effectively removing plaque every day. Specialist anti-tartar toothpastes have ingredients which can slow down tartar formation.
Is there a difference between tartar and calculus?
No, calculus and tartar are the same thing. The words can be used interchangeably.
Are some people more susceptible to tartar?
Yes, some people are more prone to calculus formation than others. It is a complex process with many factors affecting it.
This includes how much saliva you produce and the ion content of that saliva. This can be affected by hydration, diseases, and diet.
Fons-Bedal et al. highlighted the major factors that influence the speed of calculus formation, including:
- periodontal diagnosis (advanced periodontitis is associated with rapid formation of calculus).
- dental crowding – people who quickly form calculus often have dental crowding. Possibly because access for effective plaque removal is difficult.
- presence of S. mutans bacteria, which is though to slow down calculus formation.
Why do I get tartar only behind my lower front teeth?
The area behind the lower front teeth is the most common place to find tartar. Dentists call this area the lingual surface of the mandibular incisors.
Jing and Yip analysed calculus formation in their 2002 paper and came to some conclusions.
It is thought that this area is more prone to calculus formation because you have a salivary duct here. In other words, it is close to where the saliva enters the mouth.
You have a few areas where saliva enters the moth. And in each of these areas, the saliva is made up of different amounts of ions. In the area behind the lower front teeth, the saliva has a very high concentration of calcium ions and phosphates, making it more likely to cause the mineralisation process. The acidity level of saliva released here is also higher, promoting formation of calcium phosphate. Finally, there is a relatively high salivary flow rate in this area. The high flow rate means saliva is moved quickly and therefore clears acids found in the plaque. Removing the cids increases the pH and again promotes formation of calcium phosphate.