The Do’s & Don’ts Of Brushing Your Tongue
Think of it as leveling up your oral health game.
You’ve got your nightly oral hygiene routine down pat — brushing, flossing, a bit of mouthwash, and a grin at the mirror as you flash your pearly whites. But experts tell Bustle that there may be a step missing in your evening ritual: cleaning your tongue. While it might seem a bit odd at first, there are real benefits to brushing your tongue, including reducing cavities and helping your breath stay fragrant.
“Although tongue scraping can’t replace brushing and flossing, there is research to suggest that cleaning the tongue can help keep breath fresh,” Maha Yakob, Ph.D., senior director of professional and scientific affairs at oral care company quip, tells Bustle. Tongue cleaners of all kinds have been a part of oral care for a really long time. Ancient tongue scrapers from across Africa, Asia, and South America were made of ivory, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, wood, or even whalebone. These days, you’re more likely to use your regular toothbrush bristles or the row of nodules on the back of your toothbrush head to brush your tongue, or to use a metal tongue scraper from CVS.
The Benefits Of Tongue Brushing
If you’re bothered by halitosis, or bad breath, tongue brushing is a good way to fight it, Yakob says. “Tongue cleaning has been linked to decrease of bacteria causing cavities, gum disease, and other conditions affecting the mouth.” It can also improve the appearance of your tongue, removing that yellowish gunk to reveal the pink muscle underneath.
The target of tongue brushing is the build-up of bacteria, food remnants, and other nasties along the surface of your dorsum, aka the surface of your tongue. A bit of bacteria is good for the tongue, per the National Institute of Health, in the same way that some bacteria is good for your gut. But too much can cause halitosis. “Tongues are the main source of bad breath,” dentist Dr. Chris Salierno, D.D.S., tells Bustle. A layer of gunk, or biofilm, on the tongue causes up to 50% of bad breath cases, according to a 2019 report in the Geriatric Medicine Journal.
A 2019 study in The Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice found that brushing and scrubbing along the tongue’s surface reduced breath odor significantly. Researchers don’t know much about how tongue-brushing affects the microbiome long-term, but one small 2020 study from Japanese researchers found that it doesn’t seem to cause problems for microbial diversity in the mouth, which means helpful bacteria won’t be eradicated by your brush.
How To Brush Your Tongue
“Plenty of people use their toothbrush to do the job as a part of their daily dental regimen,” Yakob says. Some toothbrushes also include a scraper or a smaller set of brushes on the back of the brush heads, so you can flip it over and use them to brush your tongue. Wash your toothbrush as normal afterward.
What’s the best movement to use, though? A study on tongue-brushing techniques — yes, those exist — published in the Journal of Applied Oral Science in 2019 compared a variety of different approaches. They found that the “X technique,” where you make six repetitions of an X sign on your whole tongue with a brush, was the most helpful when it came to reducing breath odor and bacteria control.
One caveat: A study in the Archives of Oral Biology in 2017 found that excessive tongue-brushing decreased the amount of papillae, or taste buds, on the tongue, and meant people couldn’t taste flavors as well. The study recommended that you don’t scrub on the sides of your tongue and just focus on the central areas. And doing so once a day is plenty: “A quick scrape or brush of your tongue is a great part of your morning routine,” Salierno says.
Tongue Brushing Vs. Tongue Scraping
Brushing your tongue with your toothbrush is different from using a designated tongue scraper. “Tongue scrapers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and usually work by starting from the back of the tongue and pulling the scraper gently forward,” Yakob says.
A small study published in The Journal of Contemporary Dental Practise in 2019 compared plastic and metal tongue scrapers with a tongue brush, and found that the plastic scraper was the most effective at clearing gunk off the tongue. Yakob notes that tongue cleaners and scrapers have also been proven to “reduce levels of volatile sulfur compounds in adult mouths” more effectively than brushing, meaning tongue scrapers reduce your chances of bad breath more than brushing does. But the 2019 study in the Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice noted that some people who use tongue scrapers report that it activates their gag reflex, so if you’ve got a sensitive one, you might want to opt for a brush instead.
Dr. Chris Salierno, D.D.S.
Maha Yakob, Ph.D.
Almas, K., Al-Sanawi, E., & Al-Shahrani, B. (2005). The effect of tongue scraper on mutans streptococci and lactobacilli in patients with caries and periodontal disease. Odonto-stomatologie tropicale = Tropical Dental Journal, 28(109), 5–10.
Christen, A. G., & Swanson, B. Z., Jr (1978). Oral hygiene: a history of tongue scraping and brushing. Journal of the American Dental Association (1939), 96(2), 215–219. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-8177(16)30453-6
Dwivedi, V., Torwane, N. A., Tyagi, S., & Maran, S. (2019). Effectiveness of Various Tongue Cleaning Aids in the Reduction of Tongue Coating and Bacterial Load: A Comparative Clinical Study. The Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice, 20(4), 444–448.
Gonçalves, A., Martins, M., Paula, B. L., Weckwerth, P. H., Franzolin, S., & Silveira, E. (2019). A new technique for tongue brushing and halitosis reduction: the X technique. Journal of Applied Oral Science : revista FOB, 27, e20180331. https://doi.org/10.1590/1678-7757-2018-0331
Kobayashi, J., Saito, T., Ito, T., Yoshimura, H., Matsuda, S., Yoshida, H., Fujita, R., & Sano, K. (2017). Association of tongue brushing with the number of fungiform taste buds and taste perception: A preliminary study using confocal laser scanning microscopy in combination with a filter-paper disc method. Archives of Oral Biology, 84, 145–150. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.archoralbio.2017.09.025
Masago, A., Marayuma, H., Nambu, T., Mashimo, C., and Takahashi, K. (2020) Influence of tongue brushing on oral microbiome diversity. Journal of Osaka Dental University, 54 (2), 205-212.
Matsui, M., Chosa, N., Shimoyama, Y. et al. (2014) Effects of tongue cleaning on bacterial flora in tongue coating and dental plaque: a crossover study. BMC Oral Health 14, 4 https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6831-14-4