Dental plaque: What is it and how to remove it from your teeth

Dental plaque is one of your mouth’s greatest enemies. Brushing and flossing twice a day is the best way to remove plaque and keep your teeth and gums healthy.1

What is dental plaque?

Plaque is a sticky substance made from leftover food particles and saliva that mix in your mouth. If you don't brush properly after meals, it begins to form and build up on your teeth. This is problematic because plaque contains bacteria, which can contribute to tooth decay and gum disease.

What causes plaque to form on teeth?

Plaque forms as a result of chemical reactions that take place in your mouth. In order to create plaque, your mouth needs bacteria, carbohydrates, food particles and saliva. Carbohydrates are found in most foods—even healthy fare like fruits and vegetables. Foods with a higher sugar content have more carbohydrates in them, so if you eat a lot of candy and cookies you are more likely to form plaque.2

The first step of plaque formation occurs when you break down food into carbohydrates while chewing it. The carbohydrates then combine with the natural bacteria in your mouth to create an acid. This acid by itself is problematic because it can eat away at enamel. But when the acid combines with left-behind particles of food and saliva, another chemical reaction occurs and the substance becomes sticky and somewhat hard. This new substance formed is plaque, and it sticks to your teeth, causing all sorts of problems if not removed.3

Explore dental plans that are easy to smile about

Humana’s dental plans are budget-friendly and some offer no waiting period. Shop plans and prices in your area today!

What does plaque look like?

Plaque is technically colorless, although it gives your teeth a “fuzzy” feeling. Since it’s sticky, it may cause some discoloration since it can cause food particles to stick to your teeth. Once plaque hardens and turns yellow, it becomes tartar.

What’s the difference between plaque and tartar?

Dental plaque that remains on your teeth for several days hardens and turns into tartar, which must be scraped off.4 Tartar makes your teeth look yellow and smell bad, so you may find it difficult to clean your mouth completely once tartar builds up.

What oral problems can plaque cause?

When plaque builds up on your teeth, it eats away the enamel, causing cavities and decay. Plaque buildup can even cause gingivitis or severe periodontal (gum) disease. If the plaque becomes tartar, its bacteria can cause bad breath and turn your teeth yellow.

How to prevent plaque buildup on teeth

You can prevent plaque from forming in 2 ways. First, you need to pay attention to your diet. Since plaque needs carbohydrates to form, the fewer you eat, the better. Avoid candy, cookies and other sweet things as much as possible in order to prevent plaque buildup.

It's not reasonable to avoid all carbohydrates, however. Many healthy foods such as bread, cereal, potatoes and corn still contain carbohydrates. Thus, some plaque is going to form when you eat.

In order to resolve this problem, the best thing you can do is brush and floss twice a day. Brushing removes plaque that has built up on your teeth. In addition, it removes loose food particles that contribute to the development of plaque. Brush your teeth going in 2 directions so that you brush off all plaque that forms on them, and make sure you brush both the front and the back of your teeth. If you have a hard time brushing, consider using an electric toothbrush, which can automatically go in 2 directions.

Additionally, you need to floss in order to remove food particles and debris from between your teeth. By flossing, you give bacteria less of a chance to form plaque.

About plaque removal

Once plaque gets onto your teeth, you have a limited amount of time to remove it before it hardens. Most plaque hardens within 48 hours of formation, and within several days it will become so hard that it is almost impossible to remove. This hard substance is tartar and the only way to remove it is to see your dentist for a professional scraping of your teeth. There are some types of toothpaste that promise to help with tartar control, but they work by removing plaque off your teeth before it hardens and becomes tartar.

Brushing your teeth is important for removing plaque that has already begun building up, as well as for preventing plaque buildup in the first place. If plaque has formed on your teeth but has not yet hardened into tartar, brushing can knock it off your teeth altogether.

Dental plaque facts and stats

  • More than 80% of American adults suffer from periodontal disease caused by plaque formation.5
  • Plaque buildup can lead to tooth loss if left untreated.
  • Plaque hardens within a few hours of forming on your teeth.
  • Green tea and red wine help prevent plaque buildup. However, red wine can stain your teeth.
  • Olive oil can cover teeth with a fatty film that stops plaque from forming on the teeth.
  • People who drink green tea are 20% less likely to lose teeth due to plaque formation.
  • Pregnant women are often more susceptible to plaque buildup and tooth decay than the general population.

Thinking about dental plaque isn't pleasant. But if left untreated, plaque can cause serious problems such as tooth decay and gum disease. Knowing more about plaque should encourage you to brush and floss so that you don't have these dental hygiene problems. Talk to your dentist about additional ways to prevent plaque formation and keep your mouth healthy.

Related articles


Individual and family dental insurance plans

From budget-friendly monthly premiums to low office-visit copays, Humana has a dental plan that is sure to fit your needs.

View plans and prices available in your area

Enroll by phone

Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. Eastern time

1-855-202-4081 (TTY: 711)

Find a dentist

See if your dentist is in our network


  1. "Plaque and Your Teeth," WebMD, last accessed March 13, 2023,
  2. “Plaque and Your Teeth.”
  3. “Dental Plaque,” Cleveland Clinic, last accessed March 13, 2023,
  4. “Dental Plaque.”
  5. “10 Astonishing Facts About Gum Disease That Can Change Your Life,” Fight Gum Disease, last accessed March 13, 2023,