Tartar Broke Off While Flossing

Updated: Sep 8

Occasionally the tartar (calculus) can come off while flossing and that is not a bad thing at all. What it means is that the tartar is not fully mature yet and if you seek treatment now, you can potentially reduce treatment complexity as well as out of pocket costs.


The purpose of this article is to explain why this happens and what you can do about it. We'll also make a convincing argument about why you shouldn't delay treatment. Hopefully that'll help you in making your decision to seek care whenever the calculus comes flying off your teeth while flossing.



Table of Contents:



Can it come off with flossing?

The tartar can certainly come off while flossing but it doesn't normally happen on an everyday basis. It can happen but you need to satisfy two criteria for the calculus to be able to break off of your teeth.


The only floss that can break off tartar

The only type of floss that can potentially break tartar off of your teeth is string floss. What this means is that the water flosser will not be able to do this. This is a unique advantage that the string floss has over the water flosser.


The reason why the string type of floss can do this is because you can sometimes hook the floss underneath the tartar and floss it out with brute mechanical force. That doesn't always happen but it occasionally can under the right conditions.


The water flosser on the other hand shoots pressurized water but it is unable to hook underneath the tartar to remove it. The high pressure water is very efficient at removing soft plaque which is lightly adhered to the enamel surface but not hard tartar that is almost bonded onto the tooth surface. You can shoot pressurized water all day long at the calculus with the water flosser but it won't come off because it is physically impossible.


wisdom tooth covered in soft plaque

The above is a picture of a wisdom tooth that is covered in soft plaque. Since plaque is very soft you can remove it with just a soft toothbrush and gentle brushing motions. This means that both floss and water flosser will be able to remove it efficiently.


However once the plaque is given time to mature, it will turn into a hardened calcified substance called tartar. The tartar is not lightly adhered to the surface of the tooth but rather tightly adhered, almost as if it was bonded on.


black tartar around retainer

Brushing and water flossing will not be able to get it off. In fact, flossing with the string may not always get it off either because the calculus is simply just THAT hard. However, there are certain instances where you can floss it off but it depends on how mature the tartar is.



How mature is the tartar?

The only opportunity that you have to remove tartar with flossing is in the early stages where it hasn't yet fully matured. The early stage of tartar is only slightly harder than plaque but significantly softer than mature calculus. You need to catch it while it is still young and not completely mature. This is the only time that you can remove tartar without a dentist.


Here is a picture of early tartar that hasn't had the time to harden into its mature form. As you can see, it is a light yellow to almost white color. It is harder than plaque but softer than its mature counterpart.


early tartar that isn't mature yet

However if you allow it to mature it becomes rock solid and that makes it impervious to all home remedies except your dentist. Your dentist and hygienist are the only people in this world that can remove fully mature tartar.


Here is a picture of fully mature tartar that is impervious to brushing, flossing, water flossing, mouthwashing, and all home remedies.


fully mature tartar forming a calculus bridge

The color becomes a much deeper yellow. You can also see that the tartar starts to connect with each other on adjacent teeth to form what we call a calculus bridge. This connection with adjacent tartar helps hold it in place and prevents it from being removed by simple brushing and flossing. It basically re-enforces each other to make it immune to your attempts at removing it.


To sum it all up, the only chance you have at flossing off tartar is while it is still in its early stages where it is soft and there isn't such a large quantity of it. Once it hardens and grows into a calculus bridge, your opportunity will have been long gone.




What broken off tartar looks like

Tartar that broke off your tooth will look like a small yellow piece of hard substance. If you look in your mouth you may notice a piece of something that is missing along your teeth.


tartar that broke off while flossing
tartar that broke off while flossing

The photo above is what chipped tartar looks like. You can visually see that a piece of it seems like it is missing where it should've connected between the adjacent teeth. The piece of calculus that was flossed out should match the exact shape of what looks like is missing in the photo.


Tell tale signs of chipped tartar that was flossed off:

  • The piece that came off was yellow and hard.

  • It looks like something is missing in your mouth.

  • If you run your tongue over the area it will feel sharp.


Other dental conditions that may seem like it but is NOT fallen off calculus

Just because you have a piece of something that is missing in your mouth, it does not always mean that it is tartar that fell off. It could be something much worse than that such as a missing filling.


front tooth cavity filling that were flossed off
front tooth cavity filling that were flossed off

In the picture above, the patient was flossing and flossed out their cavity filling! Something small and hard came out but it sure wasn't tartar because it turned out to be their tooth filling.


This condition shares a lot of similarities with fallen off calculus because something feels like it is missing and it feels sharp to your tongue.


The main difference is that with a missing filling, it will most likely be sensitive or potentially painful. That is because you have exposed dentin where the missing restoration is. In the case for calcified plaque that has come off, it is enamel underneath so nothing is exposed. Thus, no sensitivity or pain from that.




What you should do after flossing it off

It is definitely a good sign if you manage to floss tartar off the back of your teeth because it means that the calculus is only starting to mature. What it means is that if you act now, you can potentially reduce treatment complexity along with minimizing treatment cost.


Less complex treatment

Since you can floss it off, it means that the tartar hasn't fully matured and hardened yet. In other words, you may potentially only need a regular teeth cleaning in order to treat it.


If it can come off with flossing, the regular cleaning procedure should be sufficient in getting rid of the rest of the tartar. This means that treatment for it would just be a routine check up and cleaning. That is as basic and simple as it can get in the world of dentistry.


If you decide to delay treatment and procrastinate by putting it off. That tartar will have the opportunity to mature and harden further into a calculus bridge. Once that occurs, a simple teeth cleaning will be insufficient to treat it.


Extremely hard calculus requires a teeth cleaning that goes deeper than usual. This procedure will require you to be numb for it because your dentist will be cleaning below the gum line in order to reach all of the calculus that has grown down there. They will also have to apply a lot more force and pressure in order to get it all off.


Hard tartar does not come off easily and that is the reason for the additional force required. This is also the reason why your teeth may hurt after a cleaning. They'll be a little sore and tender for the next few days.



Less expensive treatment

The benefit of acting sooner rather than later is the possibility of only needing a regular dental cleaning as opposed to a deep teeth cleaning. The routine cleaning is less costly than its deeper counterpart.


If you have dental insurance, the regular one is typically covered at 100%. The deep cleaning on the other hand is usually covered at 80% and you have to pay a deductible as well.


If money is a motivating factor for you, the recommendation would be to have this treated as soon as possible. You'll not only save yourself time but also money, which you can put towards other needs in your life.




Preventing recurrences

After having the tartar removed at the dentist, it does not mean that you're permanently cured because it can return. Plaque will rebuild on your teeth on a daily basis and that means it will need to be removed on a daily basis.


How you can remove it is by practicing good oral hygiene by brushing twice a day for at least two minutes for each session. The best time to floss would also be right before you go to bed so that you don't have residual food stuck in between your teeth.


As long as you practice that, you should be able to keep the plaque from turning into tartar for the most part. It would also be extremely beneficial if you go get a dental check up and teeth cleaning every 6 months so that your dentist can get rid of anything that you may have missed.



Takeaway

Yes it is possible for tartar to break off while you're flossing but it has to be in the early stages of maturation and you must be using string floss. Fully mature tartar is extremely hard and will form a calculus bridge that makes it impervious to all oral hygiene techniques. Only a dentist can remove it once it reaches that stage.


The fact that you were able to remove it with flossing means that it has not reach full maturity. That is great news because you can most likely reduce treatment complexity as well as the costs associated with it.


In other words, you should try to seek care as soon as possible so what are you waiting for? Go schedule an appointment with your dentist at your earliest convenience. Don't wait too long though or it may cost you more money!

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About the author: Dr David Chen, DDS

Hello, I'm Dr Chen and I'm an actively practicing dentist in Long Island City, NY. I graduated from Columbia University College of Dental Medicine in 2016 but prior to going to dental school I was already working in the dental field. It's been more than a decade since I first got to know dentistry and let me tell you, time flies by quickly. Since then I've developed a fondness for writing, which is how this all got started!

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Medical Disclaimer:

This blog is purely meant for information purposes and should not be used as medical advice. Each situation in your mouth is unique and complex. It is not possible to give advice nor diagnose any oral conditions based on text nor virtual consultations. The best thing to do is to go in person to see your dentist for an examination and consultation so that you can receive the best care possible.

The purpose of all of this oral health information is to encourage you to see your dentist and to inform you of what you may expect during your visit. Due to the unfortunate nature of dentistry, there isn't really any true home remedies that will get rid of dental problems. Roughly 99.99% of them require in-person intervention by a healthcare professional.

Hint: That is the reason why you can't eliminate seeing dentists in your life!