Let’s Talk Calculus


Sorry to all the math nerds out there that thought I was going to discuss differential equations… I’m here to tell you all about dental calculus, otherwise known as tartar.  With a better understanding of this stubborn substance, you will be able to keep it to a minimum and avoid the problems that it can cause.

A Slimy Start

The germs in your mouth don’t like to live in isolation.  They prefer to find other bacteria to live and breed with and eventually, this colony creates a very slippery layer that covers any surface that doesn’t get disrupted. This layer is called a biofilm and it is the beginning of your journey to tartar.  Believe it or not, the germs in your mouth are able to communicate with one another and seek out other specific types of germs that are beneficial to their own existence.  The main problem with live bacteria is that when they are fed little bits of leftover food that contains sugar, they give off acid as a byproduct and grow future generations of bacteria at an incredible speed.  This acid can lead to a number of dental issues, but let’s keep this blog post focused on tartar.

The Plot Thickens

Although you will find bacteria on literally every surface in your mouth, you have to consider that different types of germs like to reside in different areas.  To protect themselves from being washed away, they give off a sticky substance that keeps them stuck like glue to to each other and to your teeth and dental work.  To make things even more interesting, there are germs that live above the gum line that aren’t nearly as harmful as the ones that live below the gum line.  Imagine every tooth in your mouth as a tiny little castle and the circular mote around each one (known as a sulcus) is where the worst germs feel safe against intruders.  As the family of germs grows into a multigenerational village way below the gum line, the layers of plaque stack on top of one another into a thick film.  This fuzzy buildup is now getting harder to remove and you are well on your way to calculus.

Solid as a Rock

When the bottom layer of germs go through their life cycle and die off, they calcify and become strongly attached to the hard surfaces on your teeth, fillings, crowns and other man made stuff.  The consistency is very similar to barnacles on the bottom of a boat!  At this point, it is almost impossible for anyone to remove it without the help of a metal scaler or ultrasonic device.  Even when you make a dedicated effort to brush and floss really well, any tartar that has developed in the nooks and crannies that you can’t get to will start to cause disease.  Most plaque only takes 48 hours to harden into tartar but there are several factors that come into play.

  • Diet and snacking habits
  • Medical conditions
  • Medications
  • Snoring and sleep apnea
  • Brushing and flossing habits
  • Missing teeth
  • Smoking or drug use
  • Misaligned teeth

Don’t Let Tartar Control You

Since every person has a different genetic makeup, quality of spit, habits, medical history and so on, it only makes sense that everyone will build up tartar at a different rate.  The best thing you can do to control your tartar is to keep it from forming in the first place.  Let me say it again.  Keep it from forming in the first place! Make sure to ask your dental professionals how often you should get your teeth cleaned and what tools or products you can use at home to prevent the plaque from getting out of hand. Trust me, hygienists like me actually enjoy getting rid of your tartar… but we want to remove it before it causes inflammation, recession and bone loss.

Calculus is a lot like dust.  It’s never ending!

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