Earlier this week, one of my friends told me a joke that made me groan. She asked, “What is a dentist’s favorite subject in high school?” I told her I didn’t know, and then she blurted out “Calculus!”
So what exactly is calculus? Calculus, commonly known as tartar (as in tartar-control toothpaste) is plaque that has hardened. In the picture below, the calculus looks like a thick, creamy coating sticking to the teeth between the teeth and the gums.
Here’s two other photos of the same mouth shown in the photo at the top of this article. Before a dental cleaning:
And the same set of teeth after a good scraping by the hygienist:
What Is Tartar / Calculus?
Tartar and calculus are the same thing. Tartar is the more common term and most dentists and dental hygienists will call it calculus. No matter what you call it, tartar is simply plaque that has sat on your teeth for a while and hardened.
A while back, I talked about how saliva helps our teeth by repairing teeth with calcium to undo the damage done by eating sugar. Unfortunately, that same calcium can get incorporated into plaque, turning it into hard tartar.
The book Carranza’s Clinical Periodontology describes calculus by saying, “It is usually white or whitish yellow in color, hard with claylike consistency, and easily detached from the tooth surface. After removal, it may rapidly recur, especially in the lingual area of the mandibular incisors. The color is influenced by contact with such substances as tobacco and food pigments.”
Where Is Tartar Usually Found?
Tartar can be found on any tooth surface and even below the gumline. A common hideout is on the tongue side of your lower front teeth. The salivary glands under your tongue put out a lot of calcium, which helps the plaque harden into tartar rather quickly.
How Can You Prevent Calculus and Tartar from Forming In Your Mouth?
The best way to prevent calculus from forming is by brushing twice a day and flossing. The book Carranza’s Clinical Periodontology says that plaque can start to mineralize (the process that helps it turn into tartar) in as little as a couple of hours!
How Is Calculus Removed from Teeth?
Once plaque has hardened into calclulus, you need to have it removed by a dental professional. Your dentist or dental hygienist removes calculus using metal instruments or with an ultrasonic dental instrument.
It’s important to visit your dentist regularly so you can get any calculus or tartar build-up removed.
What Happens If You Never Get Calculus Removed From Your Teeth?
If you don’t go to the dentist to get calculus removed from your teeth it can start to irritate your gums and over time may cause periodontal disease, a major cause of tooth loss. If you look again at the picture above, you can see that the patient’s gums appear to be falling down, because they are irritated from all of the tartar.
Chances are that if you have calculus visible on your teeth then there is also some below the gumline. It’s important to see your dentist so that you can keep your teeth clean and free of periodontal disease.
In summary, bacteria cling to your teeth and grow, forming plaque. If you don’t remove the plaque by brushing and flossing, it can get hard and turn into mineralized plaque known as tartar or calculus.
If you don’t get it cleaned off, tartar can irritate your gums, contributing to periodontal disease.
If you have any questions, comments, or good jokes to share about tartar or calculus, feel free to leave them below in the comments section. Thanks for reading!