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What are Tartar and Calculus?

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.

Tartar / Calculus

Here’s two other photos of the same mouth shown in the photo at the top of this article.  Before a dental cleaning:

Dental Tartar and Calculus Before Cleaning

And the same set of teeth after a good scraping by the hygienist:

Dental Tartar and Calculus After Dental Cleaning

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!



  1. Hi, my 7 year old daughter has been getting the hard yellow build up behind her bottom front teeth. We have had it removed and then it came back pretty fast. She is good with brushing twice a day but we are bad with flossing. We need to be better w that. Will she have this her whole life? Is there a mouth wash she could use to help. She says the removal hurts, so I am scared she will have to do this every 4 to 6 weeks. Any advice? Jennifer

    • Hi Jennifer – I’ve noticed that tartar does build up a lot faster in certain people than it does in others. It is not as common in children. The book Pediatric Dentistry by Pinkham states, “Calculus is not as common in young patients as it is in adults, but it is found in about 10% of children and approximately one-third of teenagers.”

      Calculus occurs because of debri that stay on the teeth and get hard. The best way to prevent it is by removing as much plaque as you can every day. Flossing is really critical for these teeth as well. When you don’t floss, you allow plaque to build up between those lower front teeth and it will quickly harden because a lot of saliva comes out from under the tongue and those are the first teeth that it touches.

      As far as I know, there isn’t mouth wash that is designed to reduce tartar build-up. I think your best bet is to find a tartar-control toothpaste and make sure that you’re getting the plaque in between the teeth by flossing. Hopefully she’ll be more willing to floss if you tell her that it will reduce the frequency of the appointments to remove the tartar in the dental office. Good luck, Jennifer!

  2. Hey I’m not sure If I have a calculus or not but I’m going to what’s going on. So I didn’t brush my teeth for 1 day and I think I have a calculus on the front of my tooth. I removed a bit with my nail and it was a whiteish- yellow colour what should I do is that calculus of so should I visit the dentist asap or can I rove it by brushing hard

  3. Hi im recently about 3 weeks got tartar removed from my teeth and the dentist said that it will come back even if you brush and i also began to floss so my question is how often should i go to the dentist for cleanings since i do get tartar build pretty quickly.

  4. […] What are Tartar and Calculus? | Oral Answers 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 … […]

  5. Hi.. Tom I really like to find out something.. I can’t find any pics or info on the net on my situation.. I know this is old thread.. I hope u can help shred light.. having some white stuff around my upper n lower gum line by the teeth on the outer edge. I had this like 24 yrs ago not as bad,I was preg.. couldnt brush b/c of being sick.. the dentist back then took care of it they not around no more. so now it worst I lost insurance n got it back.. this new dentist just said where u not took care of u teeth… it can’t be fixed.. won’t tell me what it called. I know it can be it been done b4… I guess they don’t want to do it. maybe my insurance.. I willing to pay if insurance don’t pay.. I just hate it I like to smile and can’t even smile b/c of some of my teeth has that white stuff that look like white milky food stuck on the tooth.. to find better dentist I have to drive 2 hrs away.. I just like to know if it tarter I seen on your post white color as tarter so I tho maybe I getting some where.. if it is can I do something I brush very hard, used whithing and baking soda and peroxide to try get rid of it… plzz any sugg be appreciate sir… thanks.

  6. hi there, great article. i have a very advanced case of this type of tarter build up on my bottom front teeth to the point that my center teeth are being displaced and actually going horizontal. i have never been able to afford a dentist. i got onto medicaid but the dentist refused to clean my teeth because they needed a deep cleaning (obviously) and medicaid only pays for a regular cleaning so i am at a loss. is it possible that i could get a bridge (if i can get financing) or do you think i may have lost bone? i do not want removable partials for several reasons. i know it is impossible to say without looking, however in your experience, have you ever had a severely advanced case of this like mine? if so how did you treat it.

  7. hi everyone i honestly have to tell you im not the best at brushing my teeth twice a day but i have a build up on my right top molar and im really afraid to go to the dentist cause of what i might find out and its a kinda hard white layer on my tooth but its not touched my gums anyone can help me out and or know what it is please

  8. Hello I have the same problem I think however I fear that ive left it too late, my tooth was crumbling at the back of my front tooth and most of the tooth at the back fell out I’m worried is it my actual tooth or tarter

  9. Hi
    My 7years young daughter has server mouth ulcers problem .That’s why most of the time she doesn’t able to brush properly. Now her mouth stinks n also has that yellow thick layer on both sides of bottom front teeth. I m worried. Plz suggest something..

  10. Hey
    My tooth broke earlier on and green sticky foul stuff came out. The first urgent appointment I got to go see my dentist is three days from now. Should I be worried

  11. I have this stuff growing at thr back of my bottom front teeth and I think in the front of it too but right behind my gum, I noticed this a while ago but I thought it would go away if I started flossing too, yet now some of my teeth if I grab and give it a push I can feel that they move a tiny bit which really worries me and just earlier on today I realised that a bit of my gum at one of my bottom front teeth was looking almost dead and I could move it down and thanks to that I managed to pull out a good chuck of tartar that at first I thought it was part of my tooth, when I looked at it it is hard as cement and was a bit blackish greenish at the very bottom and the rest white yellowish, I assume the black in it is over smoking, and now my gum at that tooth feels exposed should I rush to a dentist? I’m just afraid I won’t have the money for an appointment

  12. I kind of worry a bit..I had a debridement last year and it felt wonderful. I was kind of neglectful, and only checked in with Army docs for 16 years. I am unfortunately a smoker of cigarettes, and have sensitive receding guns. Can you recommend anything to stop irritation? I appreciate any advice, thanks. (I know you’ll say quit smoking) lol

  13. Is it possible to have calculus removed completely after is really bad like in the picture? A friend of mine has it all over the top of his front teeth and it smells horrible. He does brushes his teeth and everything now, but the smell is always there.


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