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How to clean your tongue

Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Gemma Wheeler

(GDC Number: 259369)

How to clean your tongue 1

You probably recall as you grew up being told about the importance of brushing your teeth, in fact, if you visit the dentist regularly, you will likely be reminded when you visit, even as an adult.

Do you ever recall being told to clean your tongue though?!

The answer for us here at Electric Teeth is a resounding no.  However, the importance of cleaning your tongue is really underplayed as confirmed by dentist Seven Danter.

The process of cleaning your tongue is relatively simple and is explained in the following steps.

How to clean your tongue: 7 steps

  1. Stick out your tongue as far as possible.
  2. Using a mirror look for areas of the tongue with the most buildup of debris. Normally at the center and back of the tongue. It is generally a white color.
  3. Place your tongue scraper or brush onto the tongue, being sure to target the area most-affected.
  4. Press down gently with the scraper or brush and pull the cleaner from the back toward the tip of the tongue.
  5. Rinse the scraper clean under a running tap to remove removed debris.
  6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 until no more debris can be removed.
  7. If desired, rinse with an anti-bacterial mouthwash.

Why do I need to clean my tongue?

Your tongue is a large muscular organ that resides in the mouth right next to those teeth you clean regularly.  It is exposed to all the same food stuffs and bacteria that your teeth are, so why do we not clean it?

Cleaning your tongue will reduce the bacteria on it, as well as preventing and improving bad breath.

The surface of the tongue is raised and pitted and the same bacteria that builds-up on our teeth and gums is present on the tongue’s surface.

Whilst the front or the tip of the tongue is relatively self-cleaning compared to the back part of it which is limited in its contact to naturally cleanse itself.

Bacteria that cause tooth decay and gum disease are found all over the mouth. That includes on the tongue. Regularly cleaning the tongue reduced the number of these bacteria in the mouth.

>Even though tongue brushing is known to remove bacteria, it is worth noting that it will not necessarily decrease the amount of plaque build-up in the rest of the mouth.

Have you ever eaten strong foods like garlic bread and still experienced the taste in your mouth, despite having cleaned your teeth?  The chances are your tongue is harboring the food particles that leave you with this taste, so a simple answer is to clean it and remove those food particles.

It is a failure to clean your tongue that can often lead to or make worse bad breath/halitosis.  In fact studies (12 & 3) have estimated that some 50 to 90% of halitosis can be traced back to residues on the tongue.

Even those studies such as this one by Danser, which suggests everyday cleaning is not a requirement, do acknowledge how, for odor control, it can be beneficial.

Cleaning the tongue regularly may also make you more sensitive to food flavors as the taste buds are not inhibited by bacteria buildup and are able to better translate the flavor and texture of food in your mouth to your brain.

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Tongue scraper or brush?

The American Dental Association says there is no real evidence to say that a tongue scraper works better than a brush.

This is also supported in research by the Cochrane Library which states that “physical removal of the coating on the dorsum of the tongue is important and not the method used”.

How to clean your tongue 3

A manual toothbrush can be used and it is argued that the bristles of a brush head will get into the grooves of the tongue that a scraper may not.

With a brush as opposed to a scraper, the technique may be a little different in that you may want to move the brush head from side to side or will have to repeat the process of pulling the brush from the back to tip of the tongue more frequently than with a scraper as the surface area tends to be smaller.

Evidence from the likes of studies by Pedrazzi and Seemann would generally suggest that the scraper is the most effective method, achieving a 75% reduction in volatile sulfur compounds compared to the 45% of a soft bristled toothbrush.

If you want to find a good tongue scraper, check out our best tongue scraper article, which looks at some of the best-selling scrapers and tells you which one we recommend.

Ultimately either are more useful to you and your breath than not cleaning your tongue at all.

Can you brush your tongue with an electric toothbrush?

Some high-end electric toothbrushes such as the Oral-B iO actually have a tongue cleaning mode.  This is a shorter cycle that provides less power and motion to the brush head for a more gentle clean.

Other brushes such as the Sonicare DiamondClean Smart come with a special brush head designed specifically for cleaning the tongue.  The paddle shaped head can be pulled along the tongue’s surface to clean it, but not take advantage of the electric brushes power.

The only issue you may find in using an electric toothbrush is that the vibrations and sensation it creates on the tongue surface may make you more sensitive to gagging. If this is the case, a manual brush or scraper may be better.

It’s probably not worth buying an electric toothbrush specifically for its tongue cleaning mode, but if yours does happen to have one, it’s worth giving it a try, especially if you don’t own a tongue cleaner already.

How often should I clean my tongue?

Many people who do not realize the importance of cleaning your tongue will go months or even years without doing so.  But studies by individuals like Miki Matsui from the Department of Oral Medicine and Iwate Medical University School of Dentistry have shown the importance of this being part of your routine.

The body and mouth will naturally clean the tongue to a point, but there is a limit to what the body can do itself and where it needs help.

Individual eating habits and oral hygiene all have an effect. Smoking will also affect how often you should clean your tongue.

The best approach is to clean your tongue twice a day like you would your teeth.  It does not take long to do.  This is particularly important if you know you suffer from halitosis.

Those who find the process painful or do not suffer with bad breath, once a day is acceptable.

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Don’t press too hard

The tongue is a sensitive surface and is prone to bleeding if you scrape or clean it too hard or too often.

Be gentle when first cleaning your tongue.  Learn by testing how sensitive your tongue is to the motion and sensation of brushing and cleaning.  Start gently and over time – be that days or weeks if needs be – gradually increase that pressure until you can clean the tongue effectively with less natural resistance.

With practice, you will become less sensitive to the process.

Remember, though, you do not need to press too hard; you do not want to make the tongue bleed or cause any real damage to the surface.  If it does bleed, stop, let it heal, and begin once is it back to normal.

How to clean your tongue 5

How to clean your tongue without gagging and desensitization

We all have a gag reflex (known as the “pharyngeal reflex”) that is a natural spasm that is designed to stop things from entering the throat.  The point at which this kicks in is very different for different people.

Brushing the tongue is one such situation that for many can cause regular gagging, but it is possible to desensitize and reduce the chances of gagging as you do this, if you particularly suffer from this.

Practice and trying different things to find what works for you will ultimately help you get over it.

Top Tips For Tongue Cleaning

  • Distraction/Pain point – Clenching your fist to create a pressure point is one example of where the mind is essentially focused on another activity and less concerned about what is going on in your mouth. (Scarborough, Baile-Van Kuren & Hughes)
  • Breathing – Try and breath through the nose rather than the mouth when brushing the tongue.
  • Brushing technique – Brush from the back of the mouth to the front or from side to side rather than from front to back.
  • Avoid an electric toothbrush if sensitive to gagging. Whilst an electric toothbrush might be your choice for teeth, the vibrations and sensation it creates on the tongue surface may make you more sensitive to gagging. If so, use a manual brush or scraper.
  • Softer bristles – If you have a brush with particularly firm bristles, something with more flex and softer to the touch, or maybe of a different material such as rubber will ease the sensation and natural tendency to gag.
  • Scraper not a brush – Try using different scrapers rather than a brush to see if this gives a different sensation that is more comfortable.
  • Clean on an empty stomach – If you are full the body may react worse to the thought of ingesting more food, whereas the body may be more relaxed if you clean your tongue first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.

What works for one will not necessarily work for others.  It is a process of trial and error and hopefully one of the above will help desensitize you and your tongue from gagging.

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How often will a tongue cleaner/scraper need to be replaced? 

If you’re thinking of buying a tongue scraper, you may be wondering about the ongoing cost – is this yet another product that you will need to buy on a regular basis? The answer is: it depends.

Manufacturers of the plastic-based products like Orabrush seem to suggest that they are replaced every 3-4 months. This makes sense, as after a while the plastic may start to harbor bacteria.

The metal-based products like drTung’s (our choice for best tongue scraper) shouldn’t need to be replaced as often (provided they are regularly cleaned) seeing as they are made out of metal which is less likely to harbor bacteria.

Other products required?

Whilst these are not ‘essential’ as part of your routine of cleaning your teeth and mouth, you may want to consider using an antibacterial mouthwash after scraping your tongue, such as chlorhexidine-containing Corsodyl, or peroxide-containing Colgate Peroxyl.

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Do you clean your tongue? 

Do you clean your tongue?  If you do, did you notice the difference after doing so?  Let us know what your experience has been.

Got any tips or tricks for others as to how to reduce the chance of gagging?

Your comments are welcomed.

And should you be looking for the best tongue scraper, do check our list out here.

About Jon Love

Jon is a leading voice on electric toothbrushes and has been quoted by mainstream media publications for his opinions and expertise.

Having handled & tested hundreds of products there really is very little he does not know about them.

Passionate about business and helping others, Jon has been involved in various online enterprises since the early 2000s.

After spending 12 years in consumer technology, it was in 2014 that he focused his attention on dental health, having experienced first-hand the challenge of choosing a new toothbrush.

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