Dental calculus, also known as tartar, is dental plaque that has hardened onto the teeth. Dental calculus forms an ideal surface for more plaque to develop, which, in turn, leads to the formation of more dental calculus. Dental calculus buildup can adversely affect the health of the gums and cause other unpleasant symptoms, including bad breath. While regular brushing and flossing can help reduce plaque buildup, once dental calculus forms, it firmly adheres to the surfaces of the teeth and cannot be removed by brushing and flossing, requiring professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist.
Dental calculus is made up of mineral and biological components. The word “calculus” can refer to any mineral buildup in the body, like kidney stones; dental calculus specifically refers to mineralized dental plaque. The mineral component of dental calculus is largely composed of calcium phosphate, and the biological, or organic, element is primarily made of bacteria, yeasts, proteins, and fats that appear in the saliva, along with bits of debris from food and drinks. Calculus can form both above and below the gumline and appears in higher concentrations in certain parts of the mouth, based on the flow of saliva in those areas. Dental calculus forms in layers, though the processes of dental calculus formation are not thoroughly understood. Variables that tend to affect the formation of dental calculus are age, sex, diet, ethnicity, oral hygiene, the composition of an individual’s plaque, the possibly presence of disabilities or diseases, certain drugs and medications, the use of tobacco, and consistent access to quality dental care.
The accumulation of plaque leads to irritation and inflammation of the gum tissue, or gingiva. This irritation can weaken the connective tissue that holds the gums onto the teeth, leading the gums to loosen and pull away from the teeth. This disease of the gums, at its start, is known as gingivitis, and, if allowed to progress to the underlying bone and tissues, becomes periodontitis. If left unaddressed, plaque will harden, calcifying into dental calculus. Calculus encourages the formation of more plaque, which leads to greater irritation and damage to the gingiva and can also lead to bone loss. The bacteria in dental plaque may also contribute to cardiovascular disease and premature births, though there is little definitive evidence connecting periodontitis to these issues.
The best way to treat dental calculus is by preventing it from occurring, which is attainable with effective oral hygiene practices. This includes brushing twice daily with fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush and flossing daily, as well as twice-yearly dental examinations and professional dental cleanings. Once dental calculus has formed, it can be removed with handheld or ultrasonic dental tools. If there is considerable dental calculus above the gumline, your dentist may recommend a scaling and root planing procedure, also known as a dental deep cleaning, which uses fine-tipped dental tools to remove plaque above the gumline and on the roots of the teeth. Innovations in dental technology have more recently introduced the use of lasers to remove dental calculus.