How much do you really know about plaque? Despite the fact that you’ve probably heard your dentist mention plaque numerous times, you may or may not have a firm understanding of what plaque actually is and how it affects your oral health. While most people know that plaque is bad, not as many people know why. Therefore, here are some of the most important facts on plaque that you should know:
What is plaque?
First and foremost, let’s take a deeper look at what plaque actually is. Dental plaque is a sticky, colorless film that forms on the surface of your teeth daily. It is also sometimes called microbial plaque, oral biofilm, dental biofilm, dental plaque biofilm, or bacterial plaque biofilm. This is because of the fact that plaque contains a gluey polymer layer that houses a variety of microorganisms.
Besides water, one of the most common components of plaque is bacteria. In fact, around 80-90% of plaque is water, however about 70% of the dry weight of plaque is bacteria and the remaining 30% is polysaccharides and glycoproteins. It is currently estimated that around 1,000 different species of bacteria have been identified in dental plaque. Nevertheless, these bacteria are considered a natural, and normally harmless, part of the oral cavity.
There are two main types of dental plaque that are differentiated by where they develop in relation to the gums. Supragingival biofilm is used to describe plaque that forms above the gums, generally within the pits and fissures of molars, in between the teeth, and along the gum line. Supragingival plaque forms around 4-12 hours after brushing the teeth and is aerobic, meaning it needs oxygen to survive. When supragingival plaque is not removed, it can then develop into subgingival plaque.
Subgingival biofilm is used to describe plaque that forms under the gums. This type of plaque forms when bacteria migrate downwards from plaque deposits above the gum line. However, subgingival plaque is mainly composed of anaerobic bacteria, which only survive with no oxygen. Since there is no oxygen below the gums, these bacteria will continue to thrive unless they are removed.
What causes plaque?
Now that we know what plaque is, let’s look at what causes it to form on the surface of your teeth. As mentioned before, plaque contains various naturally-occurring microorganisms. This means that the human mouth has a constant population of microorganisms. Additionally, more organisms are added to the mouth from eating, drinking, and even breathing. The reason why these organisms don’t simply die out is because your mouth also provides a beneficial environment for them to grow.
For starters, teeth do not shed like other parts of the body. This allows bacteria to easily grow on the surface of the teeth, forming plaque. Not only that, but the ideal pH for plaque growth is 6.7 and 8.3, with your saliva being around 6 and 7. Finally, the warm, moist environment also helps to encourage plaque formation. It is also important to note that bacteria feed on sugars, so excess sugar consumption is also a contributing factor to plaque formation.
How Plaque Affects Your Oral Health
Now that we know what plaque is and what causes it to develop on the surface of your teeth, let’s look at just how it can affect your oral health. For starters, plaque is sticky and houses bacteria. This means that when it forms on the surface of your teeth, it essentially acts as a glue that holds bacteria to your enamel. Because plaque is sticky, it also traps food particles that the bacteria feed on. Feeding bacteria not only allows them to survive, but it allows bacterial populations to grow.
Since bacteria is a natural part of your mouth’s ecosystem, you will always have some amount of bacteria in your mouth. In these cases, bacteria is normally harmless. However, when too much bacteria accumulates, it disrupts the entire balance of your mouth’s ecosystem. For starters, bacteria produce an acidic waste product after the “eat”. This causes two things to happen. First, the bacteria on the surface of your teeth will start to damage your enamel as they deposit large amounts of acid in one place, ultimately leading to the formation of a cavity. Next, acids produced by bacteria can also lower the entire pH of your mouth, making your saliva more acidic. This also raises the risk of tooth decay and decreases your mouth’s ability to clean itself.
Excess bacteria can also cause serious issues for your gums. As mentioned before, plaque starts to accumulate above the gum line. When it is not removed, however, then this can lead to plaque formation below the gum line. This can cause gum inflammation known as gingivitis. When gingivitis is not treated, it can lead to periodontitis, which is a severe form of gum disease that has been associated with both jawbone deterioration and eventual tooth loss.
How to Manage Plaque
The American Dental Association and your dentist both have extensive knowledge on just how plaque affects your oral health, so the best way to manage plaque is by listening to their guidelines. For starters, the ADA recommends brushing your teeth twice a day for two minutes and flossing daily. They also recommend visiting your dentist at least twice a year for an exam and cleaning. During these exams, your dentist can tell you if there are additional steps you should take to manage the amount of plaque that forms on your teeth.
Dr. Sadati possesses extensive experience in all aspects of advanced restorative dentistry, with an emphasis in cosmetic and implant dentistry. He has attained Accredited Fellow status in the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (AACD), the most rigorous, demanding credentialing process in the world. He is the only AACD Accredited Fellow in South Florida.