But until recently, even I, Two-Minute Tooth Brushing Girl, was missing a crucial component from my oral hygiene routine: I wasn’t cleaning my tongue. As it turns out, brushing or scraping your tongue may help you get rid of grody bacteria that can cause bad breath.
Though the American Dental Association says brushing your tongue isn’t a necessary step for good oral health in the same way brushing your teeth and flossing are, some evidence shows it can help tame breath that reeks. At the very least, it might make your mouth feel really clean. Here’s why cleaning your tongue can be a good idea, plus the right way to do it, if you’re so inclined.
Your mouth is full of bacteria, but that’s not automatically a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing for your oral hygiene.
Though tons of bacteria are hanging out in your mouth at any given moment, most of them aren’t harmful, Lisa Simon, D.M.D., an oral health and medicine integration fellow at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, tells SELF. It seems completely counterintuitive, but many bacteria in your mouth protect you by keeping out foreign organisms, like disease-causing pathogens, Philip Tierno, Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at New York University Medical Center, tells SELF.
The problem is that even though most of the bacteria in your mouth is doing you a solid, sometimes it doesn’t smell great.
A lot of the bacteria living in your mouth are anaerobic, meaning they don’t need oxygen to survive, Dr. Tierno says. These anaerobic bacteria—including the ones on your tongue—can produce various byproducts, including sulfur compounds, which can smell like straight-up trash.
How bad the sulfur smells will vary, Sally Cram, D.D.S., a periodontist based in Washington, D.C., tells SELF. For example, if you’ve eaten recently, bad breath can get way more pronounced because anaerobic bacteria can feed on food debris, break it down, and release those smelly sulfur compounds.
Having a dry mouth can also make the smell more severe, Dr. Cram says. This can happen if you’re dehydrated or if you have the aptly named condition dry mouth. Saliva neutralizes bacterial acids and limits bacterial growth, according to the Mayo Clinic, so when your spit is running low, bacteria may be able to cause more of a smell.
The bacteria that causes bad breath is usually non-pathogenic, meaning it’s not harmful or disease-causing, Dr. Tierno says. But sometimes, bad breath could mean you have an infection, like gum disease, aka periodontitis. If your bad breath is accompanied by symptoms like swollen gums, bleeding gums, loose teeth, or painful chewing, you should talk to your dentist.
Now, how do you actually clean your tongue? Grab a tongue scraper or toothbrush and get to work.
Cleaning your tongue is pretty easy, Vera Tang, D.D.S., a New York-based dentist, tells SELF. You can either use a tongue scraper or toothbrush once or twice a day after brushing your teeth.
If you have a strong gag reflex, Dr. Tang recommends you use a tongue scraper, because it’s flatter and may feel less intrusive than a toothbrush. But if you’d rather not spring for a tongue scraper, you can use the same toothbrush you use on your teeth every day. Since your tongue and teeth touch all the time and share a ton of bacteria, you don’t need a separate toothbrush to clean them, Dr. Simon says.
Once you have your tool of choice, you’ll want to stick your tongue out as far as you can, Dr. Tang says. Then reach to the back of it and scrape outward to the tip. Be careful not to press too hard—you don’t want to cut your skin. Just apply gentle pressure, rinsing the scraper or toothbrush off after each pass to avoid re-depositing all that crud back on your tongue.
If your gag reflex is giving you trouble, you can try humming to distract yourself while you do this, Dr. Tang says. You can also try not extending your tongue as much.
If you’d rather not come face-to-face with all the stuff hanging out on your tongue, you can just use mouthwash instead. You can opt for a cosmetic mouthwash, which can basically mask bad breath, or you can go for a therapeutic one that’s actually meant to control bacteria that can cause bad breath, tooth decay, and other oral hygiene issues. Therapeutic mouthwash is available by prescription and over the counter. Here’s more information on figuring out which kind of mouthwash makes sense for you.
Whether you use a toothbrush or tongue scraper to clean your tongue, make sure you can’t see any matter on it when you’re done.
All you have to do is rinse it off the same way you’d rinse off a toothbrush, Dr. Cram says. If you want to go the extra mile, you can dip it in some mouthwash, as well.
You should be replacing your toothbrush every three or four months, so if you’re using a designated tongue scraper, you can grab a new one that often, too. The only exception is if you’re sick, whether with a cold or some other kind of infection. You’ll want to get a new toothbrush and tongue scraper to start from a clean slate, Dr. Simon says.
If you’re wondering whether you’ve cleaned your tongue well enough, its color might be a clue.
Remember, clean doesn’t mean 100 percent bacteria-free. “Most people’s tongues and mouths are dirty, but that’s a totally normal thing for your mouth to be,” Dr. Simon says. Still, if you want to know whether or not your tongue-cleaning efforts have been successful, check out your tongue in the mirror. It should be a fleshy pink color, Dr. Cram says.
If it looks black and hairy, white, or any other color besides pink, that probably just means there’s a buildup of debris on your tongue that you can clean off using the above method. See a dentist if the fuzziness or abnormal color persists despite regular cleaning.
Once you’ve stuck out your tongue, given it a once-over, and signed off on its fleshy, pink appearance, you’re good to go. Feel free to repeat the process daily, or just whenever your tongue takes on a weird color, or your mouth feels a little dirtier than usual. Your tongue (and the people you talk to) will thank you.