What Is Plaque, and Why Should You Care?

If you’ve ever been to the dentist, then you’ve probably gotten an earful about plaque and the importance of removing it from your mouth.

But just because people have heard the word “plaque” a lot, that doesn’t mean they actually know what it is. If every dental patient in America were given a pop quiz right at this moment, we’re willing to bet very few of them would be able to say exactly what plaque is and why it matters to their oral health.

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In the spirit of upping those numbers, consider this your cheat sheet on plaque. Breeze through this article to be more empowered about your own oral health (and so the next time somebody presents you with a dental health quiz, you’ll be ready).

What is plaque?

Fess up: Have you ever skipped brushing your teeth because you got home late or were feeling extra sleepy before bed? If so, then you’ve probably experienced the consequences of skipping your nightly tooth brushing session: Waking up to a sticky, fuzzy film covering your teeth.

If you know what we’re talking about, then you already know what plaque is—even if you aren’t sure of the exact definition.

“Plaque” is simply the dental term for the colorless, sticky film that builds up on and between your teeth and along your gum line. In addition to creating that “fuzzy” feeling in your mouth, plaque also contains millions of bacteria. While not brushing properly will exacerbate plaque buildup, the reality is that plaque forms constantly.

Why should you care about plaque?

So why you should you care about that film on your teeth? Because when plaque sticks around, it can cause tooth decay and gum disease.

There are several reasons why this is the case.

For starters, the bacteria in plaque can produce acids that degrade tooth enamel. These acids are typically produced after the bacteria come in contact with carbohydrates or sugars from our food. If left unchecked, these acid attacks can ultimately result in the formation of cavities. In severe cases, the acids may also break down the bone that supports a tooth.

Additionally, plaque that isn’t removed may gradually calcify into tartar, which can make it difficult to brush and floss. (Once tartar forms, it can only be removed via professional cleaning.) Plaque and tartar that accumulate along the gum line may also contribute to gum inflammation, irritation, or disease.

One more downside of plaque? When it isn’t kept in check, plaque may contribute to bad breath, or halitosis. For proof, simply refer back to that morning after the night you didn’t brush your teeth!

The bottom line is that plaque matters because it’s one of the biggest threats to your oral health. If plaque development is left unchecked, it may contribute to a trifecta of dental issues: cavities, gum disease, and bad breath.

Not surprisingly, the best way to combat plaque buildup is to practice a solid oral health routine. That means brushing twice a day, flossing every day, eating a healthy diet, and visiting your dentist on a regular basis. Consider these practices your foot soldiers in the fight for sustained dental health—and befriend them even when you’re feeling sleepy.