What Is Tooth Plaque Made Of & Why Is It Bad?

photographed by Erin Yamagata; produced by Julie Borowsky; produced by Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez; modeled by Michelle Li.
On the rare occasions when you actually remember to floss your teeth, you might have felt weirdly satisfied watching the white gunk and debris get airlifted from between the crevices of your teeth. In fact, some people are obsessed with watching teeth cleaning videos for exactly this reason. But what is that stuff between your teeth, and why does it have to be flossed out in the first place?
Plaque is the sticky film that forms on and between teeth, and it's made up of bacteria, sugar, and food, explains Timothy Chase, DMD, a dentist in New York City. Everyone gets plaque and it's not a huge deal, so long as you remove it by regularly brushing and flossing your teeth, he says. However, some people are predisposed to forming more plaque than others, which can lead to dental issues down the line, he says.
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When plaque builds up on your teeth, the bacteria emits acid byproducts, which can cause your teeth to weaken. Eventually, this creates a hole (aka a cavity) in the outer layer of your teeth, where bacteria tends to camp out, Dr. Chase says. "Essentially they are waiting for their next meal," he says. To be clear, we all have bacteria in our mouths, and it feeds off of food and saliva. But, according to Dr. Chase, studies show that some people have "more destructive bacteria" than others. "Meaning, two people can have the same exact amount of plaque and one may wind up with tons of cavities and the other none," he says.
Besides genetics, there are a few other factors that can contribute to the amount of plaque that accumulates on your teeth, like the food you eat. "The texture and sugar content of certain foods can lead to a greater volume of plaque, increase difficulty in cleaning, or [add] more fuel for the plaque to thrive," Dr. Chase says. For example, starches (like white bread or cookies) can create a mushy plaque, while sticky foods (like caramel or licorice) can coat your teeth and make it harder to remove. And the more sugar you eat, the more fuel the bacteria has to go to town on your teeth, he says.
If all this plaque talk has you wanting to go brush your teeth, we get it. Plaque can feel kind of fuzzy on your teeth, and sometimes it has a foul odor. The best way to get rid of plaque is to brush and floss your teeth, use mouthwash, and scrape your tongue, Dr. Chase says. Sometimes, plaque can harden and turn into something called tartar, which usually collects at the base of your tooth, and can irritate your gums and lead to gum disease, according to the American Dental Association. To remove that, it's important to get your teeth cleaned by a dentist at least once a year.
At the end of the day, removing gross plaque from between your teeth might seem like one more chore you have to deal with, but it's worth it — if not for the gratifying sensation, for the assurance that you're practicing good dental hygiene.

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