Should You Brush Your Tongue?

How It Affects Your Breath, Taste, and Overall Health

November 14, 2023 Written By: Joyce Kahng, DDS

Good oral hygiene is indispensable for overall health and well-being, not just for maintaining a bright smile. Yet, an important aspect of this routine – tongue brushing – often gets the cold shoulder.

Many don’t realize how this simple practice can dramatically impact oral health. We will discuss the importance of tongue brushing, proper techniques, and common mistakes to avoid.

Why You Should Brush Your Tongue

The tongue, while crucial for many of our daily functions, can be a hotspot for bacteria, plaque, and food debris. Over time, if not cleaned, these accumulations can lead to bad breath, tooth decay, gum disease, and more.

Here are some noteworthy statistics and studies underscoring the importance of tongue brushing:

Bad Breath Origins: A 2019 study revealed that approximately 85% of bad breath cases directly result from tongue coating.

Combatting Oral Malodor: According to research from 2015, tongue brushing can significantly decrease the levels of volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) – the main culprits behind most oral malodor – by 75%.

Taste Perception and Dry Mouth: A study in 2018 reported that cleaning the tongue can enhance taste perception and improve the quality of life for individuals with xerostomia, commonly known as dry mouth.

Not only is tongue brushing beneficial for oral health, but it also offers a variety of other perks:

  • Regular tongue brushing can ward off potential dental issues.
  • Experience a renewed and more vivid sense of taste, increasing your enjoyment of food.
  • You no longer need to worry about having bad breath in social or professional situations.
  • By removing harmful bacteria, you’re supporting your body’s natural defenses and reducing the risk of infections.

The Types and Functions of the Tongue Papillae

Understanding the intricacies of our tongue can offer insights into the importance of tongue cleaning. The tongue papillae play a vital role in our sensory experiences, like taste and texture. They are the small, raised bumps you feel when you run your finger across your tongue.

The tongue boasts several types of papillae:

Filiform Papillae: These are thin, fine projections covering most of the tongue’s surface and help grasp food.

Fungiform Papillae: Scattered across the tongue, these are involved in tasting.

Foliate Papillae: Located on the sides of the tongue, they contain taste buds sensitive to sour and salty flavors.

Circumvallate Papillae: Positioned at the back of the tongue, these play a key role in taste sensation.

The structure, size, and distribution of these papillae can vary from person to person, influencing how much and what kind of tongue coating is present. Some might have denser papillae, leading to a higher accumulation of debris.

Practical Tongue Cleaning Tips

If you’re seeking applicable ways to enhance your tongue-cleaning routine, consider these valuable tips. These simple yet effective strategies will benefit your tongue’s health and overall oral hygiene:

  • Use a soft-bristled toothbrush or a specially designed tongue scraper for a thorough clean.
  • Apply gentle pressure; being too aggressive can damage the papillae and the delicate skin of the tongue.
  • Brush or scrape from the back to the front of the tongue for best results.
  • Clean your tongue in the morning before breakfast and coffee or at bedtime.
  • Periodically check your tongue for changes in color or texture for signs of potential issues.

Regularly cleaning your tongue is a small commitment with substantial benefits. By incorporating this into your daily oral hygiene routine, you’ll pave the way for better oral health, fresher breath, and a more vibrant tasting experience.

So, the next time you brush your teeth, don’t forget the unsung hero – your tongue!

Methods and Tools for Effective Tongue Cleaning

Unlocking the secrets to effective tongue cleaning begins with exploring various methods and tools tailored to this essential aspect of oral hygiene. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned pro in oral care, these methods and tools will help you achieve the best results for maintaining fresh breath and optimal oral health.


The toothbrush serves as a readily available and uncomplicated tool for tongue cleaning. You can use the same toothbrush you use for your teeth or opt for a softer one dedicated to tongue cleaning.

Begin the process by gently brushing from the back of your tongue towards the front in circular motions. Adding a small amount of toothpaste or water to the brush can aid in cleaning.

After each stroke, be sure to rinse your mouth and the toothbrush to remove any debris. Keep brushing until your tongue feels thoroughly clean, ensuring a refreshed and revitalized oral hygiene routine.

Tongue Scraper

The tongue scraper is a specialized tool designed explicitly to remove tongue coatings. It comes in various designs and can be made of either plastic or metal.

To use a tongue scraper effectively, hold it by both ends and position it at the back of your tongue. With gentle pressure, scrape forward along the surface of your tongue.

After each scrape, it’s essential to rinse both the scraper and your mouth to remove any accumulated debris. Continue this process until no visible residue is left on your tongue, leaving your mouth feeling refreshed and your oral hygiene optimized.

Mouth Rinse

Mouth rinses are liquid solutions that dislodge and wash away tongue coatings effectively. They come in various forms, including commercial products or DIY solutions such as mixing salt, baking soda, or hydrogen peroxide with water.

Swish a mouth rinse around your mouth for approximately 30 seconds, ensuring it reaches and thoroughly cleanses your tongue. Afterward, spit it out, and if necessary, repeat the process for a comprehensive tongue cleaning experience, promoting fresh breath and enhanced oral hygiene.

Types and Causes of Tongue Discoloration

While exploring the intricacies of tongue health and its potential issues, it’s crucial to delve into the causes and types of tongue discoloration. Understanding these factors can shed light on various underlying health conditions and provide insights into maintaining optimal oral well-being.

White Tongue

White tongue is a common oral condition characterized by a whitish or pale coating on the tongue’s surface. This discoloration can occur for several reasons, such as dehydration or smoking. One of the most common causes is the accumulation of dead cells, bacteria, and food debris on the tongue’s papillae.

White tongue can also be a symptom of underlying health issues, such as:

  • oral thrush
  • leukoplakia
  • geographic tongue
  • certain infections

Proper oral hygiene, including regular tongue cleaning, can often alleviate mild cases of white tongue, but persistent or severe discoloration may require medical evaluation and treatment to address the underlying cause.

Black Hairy Tongue

Black hairy tongue is a benign yet visually striking oral condition characterized by a dark discoloration and an unusual “hairy” appearance on the tongue’s surface.
This condition occurs when the tiny projections on the tongue, known as papillae, become elongated and discolored, often turning black, brown, or dark green. The long papillae can trap bacteria, dead cells, and debris, creating a “hairy” appearance.

Common causes of black hairy tongue include:

  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Tobacco use
  • Excessive consumption of caffeine or alcohol
  • Certain medications
  • A lack of regular tongue cleaning

While this condition is typically harmless, it can be distressing in appearance. Improving oral hygiene practices and addressing any underlying causes usually lead to its resolution.

Red or Strawberry Tongue

A red or strawberry tongue is characterized by the tongue appearing redder than usual and sometimes resembling the surface of a strawberry.

This discoloration can be attributed to various factors, including:

  • Vitamin deficiency, such as vitamin B12 and folic acid
  • Infections, including streptococcal infections
  • Allergic reactions to foods, medications, or other substances
  • Geographic tongue, a benign condition resembling a map
  • Scarlet Fever, a bacterial infection
  • Kawasaki Disease, a rare childhood illness
  • Toxic Shock Syndrome, a rare but severe condition
  • Severe dehydration
  • Irritation caused by smoking or spicy foods

Treatment for a red or strawberry tongue depends on its underlying cause. If it’s due to a nutritional deficiency, addressing the deficiency through dietary changes or supplements can help.

Medical evaluation and appropriate treatment are necessary in cases related to infections or more serious conditions.

If you notice persistent or concerning changes in the appearance of your tongue, it’s advisable to consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate care.

Yellow Tongue

A yellow tongue is a condition characterized by an abnormal yellowish discoloration of the tongue’s surface. This discoloration can result from various causes and may vary in intensity.

Some common factors contributing to a yellow tongue include:

Poor Oral Hygiene: Inadequate tongue cleaning can allow the buildup of bacteria, dead cells, and debris, leading to a yellowish appearance.

Smoking: Smoking tobacco products can stain the tongue, causing it to turn yellow or brown over time.

Diet: Consumption of foods and beverages that contain artificial colorants or high amounts of pigments, such as curries or certain candies, can contribute to tongue discoloration.

Dehydration: A lack of proper hydration can cause the tongue to become dry and yellow.

Medications: Some medications can cause a yellow tongue as a side effect, especially if they affect saliva production or alter oral flora.

Infections: Fungal infections like oral thrush or bacterial infections can lead to a yellow tongue.

Jaundice: In cases of severe jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes, including the tongue, can occur due to excess bilirubin in the bloodstream.

Gastrointestinal Issues: Certain gastrointestinal disorders, such as acid reflux or liver problems, can indirectly cause a yellow tongue.

Tongue Coating: A yellow tongue coating, a buildup of bacteria and debris, can result in yellow discoloration.

The Relationship Between Tongue Brushing and Oral Cancer Prevention

Oral cancer, a subgroup of head and neck cancers, predominantly targets the mouth and throat. This includes the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, sinuses, and pharynx (throat).

It can metastasize (spread) swiftly to other body parts if not diagnosed and treated early, making it crucial to prevent or detect it in its early stages.

Can Tongue-Cleaning Prevent Oral Cancer?

Regular tongue brushing is believed to help prevent oral cancer by removing carcinogens from the tongue’s surface. Carcinogens are substances capable of causing cancer. Your mouth can be exposed to them through various means, including tobacco and certain foods.

Research Support:

Reducing Oral Cancer Risk

Reducing the risk of oral cancer involves adopting a proactive approach to oral hygiene and lifestyle choices. It’s crucial to clean your tongue daily to reduce the risk of oral cancer. This should be done after meals or smoking to remove potential sources of irritation and inflammation.

Equally significant is avoiding all forms of tobacco products and practicing moderation in alcohol consumption, as they are prominent risk factors for oral cancer.

Incorporating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables is another essential step in cancer prevention. These foods provide valuable antioxidants and essential vitamins that can help combat the risk of oral cancer.

Furthermore, regular dental check-ups are indispensable in this effort. Routine oral exams and screenings conducted by your dentist are instrumental in detecting any early signs of oral cancer, ensuring timely intervention, and maintaining oral health.

Taking these proactive measures can significantly reduce your risk of developing oral cancer and promote a healthier, cancer-free mouth.

What to Avoid When Cleaning Your Tongue

While tongue cleaning is beneficial, it is not without potential risks:

  • Gag Reflex: Especially for those with a sensitive gag reflex or a more substantial tongue, tongue cleaning can trigger nausea or vomiting.
  • Taste Bud Damage: Cleaning too rigorously or with unsuitable tools can harm the taste buds or injure the tongue tissue.
  • Bacterial Imbalance: Overzealous tongue cleaning may alter the natural bacterial balance in the mouth, leading to conditions like oral dysbiosis or candidiasis.

Research Support:

Tongue Brushing for Optimal Oral Health

Tongue brushing stands as a vital pillar in oral hygiene, aiding not just in fresher breath and better taste but potentially in bolstering overall oral health. Yet, it’s paramount to ensure that it’s done judiciously to stave off any detrimental effects. Following our tips, you can implement tongue brushing as a safe, effective regimen in your oral care.

Smile Smarter,
Dr. Joyce

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