What Does Tartar On Teeth Look Like?

Updated: Sep 16

We all know that tartar (calculus) is bad for your teeth because your dentist tells you so and it is on all of the toothpaste labels. However, what does tartar on teeth actually look like? No one has ever shown you so how are you suppose to know if you have it or not?


The purpose of this article is to inform you on what they look like and how you can tell if you have it. We'll also go over what you should do about it. By the time you finish reading, you'll be much more knowledgeable than when you started!



Table of Contents:



What is tartar on teeth?

Tartar (calculus) is a form of calcified plaque that is stuck onto your teeth. It is basically hardened plaque that cannot be brushed or flossed off. Only a dentist or hygienist can remove it due to how calcified it is. Yes, that means you cannot remove the tartar without a dentist.


tartar on lower front teeth

Tartar does not arise out of no where. They are the result of untreated plaque that slowly hardens over time. Plaque is actually very soft and can easily be brushed off and flossed off. However, if you do not remove it before going to bed it will start to turn hard the next day. If you still do not remove it the day after that, it just keeps getting harder and harder.


It eventually reaches a point where it becomes so hard that it cannot be removed at home. That is when it becomes what is known as calculus (tartar).




How do I know if I have tartar on my teeth?

It is quite easy to identify tartar because you can do it based on appearance and also feel. Those who routinely go to the dentist every 6 months for their teeth cleaning KNOW when they have tartar built up. It tells them that it is time for their next dental cleaning.


light tartar on lower crowded front teeth

Appearance:

  • Yellow to white in color most of the time.

  • Can be black (black tartar)

  • It does pick up staining and coloring from foods that you eat

  • Solid looking surface

  • May bleed if you try to brush or floss it.


What it feels like:

  • Feels hard to the tongue

  • Will fill in all of the gaps and spaces in between your teeth

  • Feels rougher than your natural tooth enamel

  • It is not uncommon to get a foul odor coming from it if you feel it with your tongue.


Just so that we are clear, once you have tartar build up you officially have gum disease. At the very least you have gingivitis but if the build up gets bad enough, you may have even progressed to periodontitis.



Pictures of what tartar looks like on teeth


Light tartar build up

This is what light tartar build up all across the tongue side of the bottom teeth looks like. It is yellow to white in color. You can see them filling in the gaps (embrasure spaces) in between the teeth where you floss through.


The tartar not only builds up on the front teeth but also on the back teeth. They don't discriminate where it accumulates. Here is a picture of calculus in between the teeth of the back molars.


tartar on back molar in between the teeth


Moderate tartar build up on teeth

This next picture is what a moderate amount of tartar build up on teeth looks like. There is simply more of it than the lighter one up above. You can also see them starting to pick up brown coloring as well. Calculus has a tendency to incorporate stains from the foods that you eat.


The tartar can also form on the cheek or lip side of the teeth as well. Here is a picture of the front side of the lower front teeth with build up on them.


tartar on the front side of the lower front teeth


Heavy tartar build up around retainers

Those retainers on the tongue side of your teeth make it very difficult for you to clean. They tend to accumulate a lot of tartar and they also pick up quite a bit of staining as well. If you compare it to the light and moderate photos, this one is a lot darker and more mature.


Here is a photo of the same patient but after most of the black tartar has been removed.


black tartar removed

As you can imagine, if the retainer can trap that much tartar, braces can trap even more since it covers all of your teeth. That is why it is not uncommon for braces to cause gingivitis.



How do you remove teeth tartar?

Tartar is hardened plaque and it can only be removed by a dentist or dental hygienist. It is actually very difficult for them to remove because they have to use an ultrasonic machine to get it off.


What the ultrasonic does is vibrate at over 35,000 rpm to attack the calculus. Sometimes it takes even more effort than that to get it off. That gets off the bulk of it but your dentist will still need to go back in to fine tune it with hand scalers.


Scalers are stainless steel instruments that are sharp enough to cut through the tartar. That is what is required to get them off. This is also why your toothbrush and floss can't get rid of it.


Here is a before and after tartar removal:


before and after tartar removal

In case you were curious as to what the actual procedure is like, here is a video showing heavy calculus removal. It takes a LOT of work to get this hardened plaque off.



You also shouldn't be surprised if your teeth and gums feel sore after the cleaning, especially if you have as much build up as in the video above. In order to remove all of that it requires quite a bit of force.


However, if you go get your cleanings on a routine basis every 6 months, it shouldn't hurt at all. In fact, those who are consistent find it quite pleasant and eagerly come back every 6 months.teeth and gums feel sore after the cleaning


Can you remove tartar at home?

Unfortunately, you can't remove tartar at home because it has already calcified. Only sharp stainless steel instruments or ultrasonics that vibrate at over 35,000 rpm can get it off.


What you can remove is plaque because that is soft. It is actually very easy to remove it because it comes off with gentle motions. What that means is that if you simply get the plaque off, it wouldn't even have a chance to transform into tartar. That is the secret to preventing tartar build up.


However, once plaque turns into tartar, you will have no choice but to go in to the dentist. There is simply no other way to treat it aside from a dental cleaning or a deep cleaning.




Does tooth tartar go away on its own?

If only the tartar on your teeth could go away on its own because if it did, you wouldn't ever need a dentist. The unfortunate truth is that when you leave tartar untreated, it not only doesn't go away but it GROWS in size.


That means the build up and condition only worsens if you try to put it off. It explains why there is light, moderate, and heavy tartar build up. When left untreated it naturally progresses to more and more build up. The only way to put a stop to the cycle is by making an appointment with your dentist.




How to prevent it from coming back

After your dentist or hygienist removes the tartar via a dental cleaning or deep cleaning, it does not mean that you are permanently cured. Plaque will build up after every meal and will attempt to harden overnight if you let it.


This is why it is important to brush and floss before going to bed so that you don't give the plaque a chance to transform into tartar. Once it hardens, you'll have no choice but to go back to the dentist and then the entire cycle repeats all over again.


Due to this reason alone, we are unable to call the treatment for tartar a cure. It can only be managed because it can and will return if left alone. The good news is that there are a lot of things that you can do which helps to prevent it or at least slow it down.


Tips to prevent tartar build up:

  • Brush for at least two minutes twice a day.

  • Floss and use some mouthwash prior to bedtime.

  • Drink a lot of water because a dry mouth contributes to plaque build up.

  • Minimize sugar intake so you don't end up with cavities and give bacteria fuel to work.

  • Go get your dental check up and cleaning every 6 months to remove any built up calculus.


If you haven't switched to an electric toothbrush yet, you really should because it cleans significantly more effectively than a manual one. It vibrates many more times than you can manually brush. You simply cannot out brush an electric just like how you can't outrun an electric car!




Takeaway

Calculus or tartar is basically calcified plaque that is stuck onto the surface of your enamel. When it is left untreated it will grow bigger and bigger until it covers the entire surface of your teeth to become known as a calculus bridge. It is incredibly unsightly and unhealthy for your gums.


Unfortunately you can only remove plaque at home so once it hardens you will have no choice but to visit your dentist. It is why your dentist will never be out of a job!

59 views
David Chen 200 x 200.jpg

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!

Association Memberships:

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!