What is a Pellicle?

Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

A dental pellicle is a deposit of organic film made from protein that forms on the surface tooth enamel. Forming just seconds after a tooth cleaning, pellicles are created from the selective absorption of saliva elements onto the surface of the teeth. Though a normal biological function, this formation is the first step of plaque development.

All tooth enamel is covered with pellicles.
All tooth enamel is covered with pellicles.

Literally considered the "skin" of the teeth, pellicles are also known as salivary acquired pellicles, acquired pellicles, and enamel pellicles. Though the exact composition, as well as structure, remains unknown, scientists know that pellicles are made up of protein components such as lysozyme, immunoglobulin A, amylase, proline-filledproteins and salivary mucins. All tooth surfaces are covered with pellicles, which are all later colonized by bacteria.

A woman getting a pellicle removed.
A woman getting a pellicle removed.

The natural development of a pellicle is intended to protect the teeth from acids. However, it also provides a means for bacteria to latch onto the teeth. Bacterias that may attach to the pellicle include Actinomyces viscosus, Streptococcus sanguis, and Streptococcus mutans. Rather than attaching to minerals within teeth, microbes adhere to the pellicles. Considered the major founders of dental plaque, these bacteria interact with pellicle components, creating a conducive climate for plaque creation.

A dental hygienist can use abrasion to remove pellicles.
A dental hygienist can use abrasion to remove pellicles.

Pellicles are not alive, and do not respond to bacteria. This makes it likely that bacteria latch onto them by feeding, which may account for the ridges, or a scalloped appearance, in the pellicles. In extreme cases, bacteria can consume all of the pellicles a patient has on his or her teeth.

Pellicle, which covers tooth enamel, is the beginning of plaque development.
Pellicle, which covers tooth enamel, is the beginning of plaque development.

Though firmly attached to the teeth, pellicles may be removed through abrasion. This is usually accomplished if a dentist or hygienist provides a considerably thorough polishing, or uses a dental burr, which is a type of drill bit for a dental drill. Normal tooth brushing will normally not cause enough abrasion to remove a pellicle. Even after removal, usually pellicles will simply reform within two hours.

Pellicles, which can be polished off by a dentist, are considered the base on which plaque forms.
Pellicles, which can be polished off by a dentist, are considered the base on which plaque forms.

Normally very thin, pellicles may occasionally be thick in some places. Subject to wear and tear, they are typically thinest on the occlusal surfaces of the teeth where grinding and chewing occur. As a clear coating typically beneath plaque, a pellicle is not visible to the naked eye; however, it can still be seen. Dentists may have their patients use a solution composed of disclosing materials to make a pellicle visible. It can then be seen as a light stain on the surface of the patient's teeth.

All tooth surfaces are covered with pellicles.
All tooth surfaces are covered with pellicles.
A dental hygienist may remove a pellicle by thoroughly polishing a patient's teeth.
A dental hygienist may remove a pellicle by thoroughly polishing a patient's teeth.
Normal brushing will not remove pellicles.
Normal brushing will not remove pellicles.
The natural development of a pellicle provides a way for bacteria to latch onto teeth.
The natural development of a pellicle provides a way for bacteria to latch onto teeth.
Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

A graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, Sara has a Master’s Degree in English, which she puts to use writing for wiseGEEK and several magazines, websites, and nonprofit organizations. She has published her own novella, and has other literary projects currently in progress. Sara’s varied interests have also led her to teach children in Spain, tutor college students, run CPR and first aid classes, and organize student retreats.

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