What is Tartar and How to Remove It?

A person’s smile is one of the first things we notice when we meet them and we can all agree that having yellow or discolored teeth isn’t going to make the best first impression.
Discoloration of the teeth can sometimes be caused by an accumulation of plaque, a sticky film made up of bacteria. If you allow plaque to build up and harden, you run the risk of developing tartar. Tartar, in turn, can damage your enamel and cause serious dental pain, as well as illnesses that can spread through the rest of the body. Nobody wants that!

You only get one set of teeth—so take good care of them! Here's everything you need to know about dental tartar, how to prevent it from building up, and tips for getting your pearly whites in great shape.

What is Tartar?

Tartar, or dental calculus, is a buildup of dental plaque and minerals from hardened saliva. Tartar can cover the outside of teeth and invade below the gum line. It feels like a rough, solid coating on your teeth. Because it’s porous, food and drink can easily stain tartar. Tartar deposits often settle behind and between the teeth and appear yellow or brown in color. Both tartar and its precursor, plaque, can wreak havoc on your dental health.

Problems Caused by Tartar Buildup

When tartar buildup on teeth goes unchecked, this coating can cause a number of health and cosmetic problems. Here are the most common:

Cosmetic problems

  • Gum recession. Tartar can push down the gingival margin, which is the line that divides the gum from the tooth. This exposes the base of the teeth that would normally be covered by the gum, making the teeth look longer.
  • Tooth staining. Tartar is a porous material that can absorb many substances. Some compounds from the food and beverages we eat can permeate and stain this layer.
  • Tooth loss. If tartar penetrates to the root of the tooth, it can cause tooth loss. This is both a health problem and an aesthetic one. 

Health problems

  • Gum inflammation. Known as gingivitis, gum inflammation causes redness in the gum tissues and in some cases, constant bleeding. This causes gum pain that often makes it difficult to eat or drink, and in extreme cases, can lead to tooth loss.
  • Bad breath. Medically, bad breath is known as halitosis. This condition is caused by bacteria living in the oral cavity that produce sulfurous (sulfur-based) compounds.
  • Periodontitis. Periodontitis is tartar buildup under the gums. This condition can cause teeth to move out of place, changing your bite and loosening teeth. If not treated properly and quickly, it can lead to tooth loss.
  • Tooth decay. Tartar can weaken tooth enamel, making it more prone to developing cavities. Cavities represent permanent damage to the tooth and, if not treated in time, can affect the dental pulp, which is the living tissue inside the tooth. When this happens, they cause intense pain and if left untreated, they can lead to tooth breakage or even the need for tooth extraction.
  • Cardiovascular disease. There are several studies that have shown a relationship between poor dental health and cardiovascular problems such as atherosclerosis, ischemia and myocardial infarction. It’s believed that this happens because bacteria accumulated in the mouth travel to heart tissue through the blood.

Habits to Prevent Tartar Buildup

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Fortunately, the problems we mentioned above are preventable. Here are some good habits to pick up to reduce the risk of tartar buildup on your teeth.

Brush your teeth regularly

Experts recommend brushing your teeth at least twice a day to remove plaque buildup that can turn into tartar. Each brushing session should last at least two minutes. It’s very important that you pay attention to how you do it. This video shows you a practical guide on how to brush your teeth properly. 

Floss every day

While brushing is the first line of defense against plaque buildup, toothbrushes often fail to clean some areas of your mouth simply because of their size. This is especially noticeable in the spaces between teeth, where food, plaque and bacteria can accumulate. This is why flossing every day is so important. 

Use mouthwash after brushing

While mouthwash isn't essential to maintaining your dental health, incorporating it into your oral hygiene routine along with brushing and flossing can help kill oral bacteria, strengthen teeth, and prevent tartar buildup. Some studies have shown that using mouthwash can kill the bacteria that causes gingivitis and improve your overall oral health.

See a dental hygienist twice a year

Experts recommend professional dental cleanings twice a year. At these cleanings (also known as prophylaxis), an oral health professional (which can be a dentist or a hygienist) will make sure to remove the dental plaque that your daily routine cannot remove and remove any tartar that has developed if necessary.

How Do You Remove Tartar?

The only way to remove tartar that’s already deposited on your teeth safely and permanently is to see a dentist or dental hygienist. The process of removing tartar is known as tartrectomy and generally consists of the following steps:

  1. The dental professional will use specialized tools to dislodge tartar from the tooth surface. These tools can be manual (metal tips used to scrape away tartar) or ultrasonic (tools that vibrate at high frequencies to dislodge the tartar from the tooth enamel).
  2. If calculus is detected in the periodontal pockets (the space between the loose part of the gum and the tooth), the dentist or hygienist will use the tools to remove the accumulated calculus.
  3. Subsequently, a process called periodontal curettage will be performed. This term refers to a procedure in which the soft surface of the gum is cleaned with instruments called curettes. This cleaning removes bacteria and tartar debris, as well as any infected tissue to promote healing and early recovery of the gum.
  4. To prevent tartar from re-forming at the base of the tooth, a procedure called root planing is then performed. This treatment consists of scraping the tooth root, which is made of a material called dental cement, until it is as smooth as possible. This is done because tartar adheres more easily to rough surfaces.
  5. The last step of the procedure is tooth polishing. During this part of the treatment, the health care professional will use a series of rotary tools usually made of rubber and special abrasive pastes to polish your teeth to make them as smooth as possible. This, like root planing, is done to prevent tartar from adhering in the future. 
Keep in mind: The steps described above can be done independently, and your dentist or hygienist will be the one to decide the best course of action for your specific case. Remember that it’s recommended to have a dental cleaning every six months to reduce the chances of tartar build-up and having to go through the whole process.

Can Tartar Be Removed with Home Remedies?

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While plaque can be removed at home by brushing, flossing and rinsing, unfortunately, when it calcifies and turns into tartar, it’s not advisable to try removing it at home. Tartar adheres very strongly to the teeth and if not removed with proper care, it can end up affecting the surface of the tooth itself. This is why daily preventive habits are extremely important to protect against tartar and maintain a beautiful, healthy smile.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does dental cleaning cost in the United States?

The cost of a cleaning varies depending on the current condition of your teeth, the clinic you attend and even the city you live in. However, the typical cost of a dental cleaning in the United States ranges from $75 to $200. 

Is tartar dangerous?

While tartar is relatively common and in small amounts does not cause major problems, tartar buildup on your teeth can be a real problem. If you detect a small amount of tartar on your teeth between your semi-annual dental cleanings, we recommend visiting your dentist earlier.

What is the best toothpaste to prevent tartar?

Any toothpaste is effective in preventing the buildup of plaque, which is the main precursor to tartar. Toothpastes containing sodium pyrophosphate or sodium hexametaphosphate have proven to be more effective in preventing plaque calcification and, therefore, tartar buildup.

What are the symptoms of tartar?

Tartar can often be seen with the naked eye as a layer of yellowish, green, or brown material at the tooth base. Keep in mind that tartar can accumulate in the periodontal pocket, in which case it will be hidden behind the gums. If you feel any discomfort when eating, notice redness on your gums, bleeding, or feel any of your teeth moving slightly, see your dentist immediately.

Your Smile is Important to Us!

We hope you find this information helpful in preventing tartar builup on your teeth and maintaining a healthy, beautiful smile. Remember that prevention is always the best strategy. Maintaining good oral hygiene is vital to maintaining your dental health. 

If you want to save on cleanings and other dental services, try subscribing to our PODERsalud program, where you can access dental health services with discounts of 15% to 50%! Those savings are definitely something to smile about!