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Plaque. Since childhood, we’ve been trained to resist that dreaded enemy of teeth. Regular brushing and flossing are sure bets for dental health. What else could you be doing -- or avoiding -- to keep plaque off your knockout smile?

“Keeping plaque off your teeth isn’t complicated, but consistency is key,” says Richard Price, DMD, spokesman for the American Dental Association. “Good habits make for healthy teeth -- for most people, it’s that simple,” Price tells WebMD.

What Is Tooth Plaque?

Plaque is a sticky mix of bacteria and the substances they secrete. Bacteria produce adhesive chemicals called mucopolysaccharides. The bacteria then live in this film on teeth, called a biofilm.

At first, this slimy layer is fragile and easily removed by tooth brushing. “Think of the film on a fish tank wall. It’s easy to wipe off with a washcloth, if you’re vigilant,” says Price.

And if you’re not? The bacteria in tooth plaque are free to release acids that damage tooth enamel. Regular acid assaults on enamel can wear holes in teeth, commonly called cavities.

If left alone, plaque buildup also gradually hardens, creating tartar or calculus on your teeth.

“Tartar is petrified plaque,” Price says. “Once it’s there, you need a dentist’s help ... tartar can’t be brushed off.” Tartar above the gum line also contributes to gingivitis, which is gum disease.

The secrets to avoiding plaque buildup aren’t so secret. You’ve probably been hearing most of them since before you lost your baby teeth. But bad habits have a way of sneaking up on us. Make sure you’re pushing back against plaque by avoiding these five bad habits for tooth health.

Plaque Habit No. 1: Not Brushing Regularly

No one else might notice if you don’t brush your teeth twice a day, every day. But your teeth will.

“Plaque is a little like bees in the summertime,” Price says. “One or two won’t really bother you, but if you let them build a beehive in the backyard, you’ve got a problem.”

Brush your teeth gently twice a day, using a fluoride-containing toothpaste. The exact technique isn’t as important as concentrating to make sure you’re softly brushing all the surfaces of your teeth.

Plaque Habit No. 2: Not Flossing Each Day

Brushing doesn’t reach the spaces between teeth, but plaque does. A simple daily flossing between teeth clears away plaque before it can cause damage.

“Flossing also cleans plaque at the gum line, another area that brushing doesn’t reach,” says Price. If left alone, plaque below the gum line can lead to periodontal disease.

If you just can’t stand flossing your teeth, consider using one of the many other ADA-approved products to clean between your teeth each day. They’re available in any supermarket or drugstore; ask your dentist if you’re not sure which one to use.

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