Probably one of the most commonly performed procedures by a dentist is the humble scale and clean. I would estimate I've cleaned around 150,000 teeth in my career so far.
I've found that a lot of patients don't really know why it is done, other than to make their teeth "clean". Yet their dentist, dental hygienist, or dental therapist insists on it being done on a regular basis. Why? How often should it be done? How is it different to giving your teeth a good scrub at home?
To begin with, let's think about the goo that builds up on your teeth.
Plaque is soft, sticky, and usually a creamy white colour. It is made up of various bacteria, their byproducts, and substances they need to live. Think of it as like a little ecosystem of microbes. Plaque can be removed with correct brushing and flossing. If left undisturbed, the bacteria release toxins which irritate your gums, and produce acid which causes tooth decay. Few people will do a completely perfect job of daily plaque removal. Having a scale and clean will get the plaque out from all those nooks and crannies that you might be missing.
Calculus, or tartar as it seems to always be called on tv, is different. It is a hard, calcified build-up which can't be removed with brushing and flossing. Calculus is effectively hardened plaque. If any small amount of plaque is left on your teeth, eventually the minerals in your saliva will be deposited in the plaque causing it to become calcified. It's a bit like the deposits you find in the bottom of your kettle. Unfortunately, gargling with CLR is not an option, so instead the calculus needs to be removed by a dental professional. This is the "scaling" part of a scale and clean. While the calculus itself doesn't really cause problems, it is extremely porous and rough. It's the perfect haven for plaque to accumulate on, so leaving calculus on your teeth causes the same problems as plaque does.
Staining is more an aesthetic problem than a health problem. It sticks to your teeth after contact with things like tea, coffee, red wine, and cigarette smoke. Whitening toothpastes can reduce the amount of staining you have, but a professional scale and clean will really clean it up if you want your teeth to shine again.
So, how often you need a scale and clean depends on a few things:
How thoroughly you brush and floss each day.
How fast you tend to accumulate calculus.
How much time your teeth spend in contact with things that will stain them.
Your dental professional should tailor the frequency of your cleans to suit your individual needs. I have patients that need a scale and clean anywhere from 3 monthly, to as little as once every 2 years.
The common, garden variety scale and clean is so important in preventing dental and oral problems. Just like having your car maintained by your mechanic, there's more to it than what you can do at home. Be sure you get to your dentist regularly for your "10,000 smile service"!