The One Mistake You’re Probably Making When You Brush Your Teeth

You should brush your tongue for fresher breath and to help prevent a condition called black hairy tongue.
Image Credit: bernardbodo/iStock/GettyImages

Even if you brush your teeth twice a day, floss frequently and visit your dentist for twice-yearly routine cleanings, you may still be skipping one essential step for optimal oral health: brushing your tongue.

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Think skipping this part of your mouth is NBD? Think again.

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It's common for people to focus only on cleaning their teeth and unintentionally neglect their tongues, says James Wanamaker, DDS, member of the New York State Dental Association and partner at Smiles of Skaneateles.

But your tongue — which has all types of nooks and crannies that attract microbial critters — can build up bacteria and volatile sulfur compounds, Dr. Wanamaker says. (Translation: When your tongue isn't clean, your breath stinks.)

So, to support a truly healthy mouth, cleaning your tongue is key. Here's how to do it properly.

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If you notice any white or red patches, significant bleeding or areas on your tongue that do not heal, get in touch with your dentist, Dr. Wanamaker says.

But even if your tongue is in tip-top shape, it’s still important to see your dentist for regular dental exams and oral cancer screenings.

How to Clean Your Tongue

Start by flossing and then brushing your teeth for two minutes (yes, in that order). Now you're ready to brush your tongue. There are two ways: either with a traditional toothbrush or a tongue scraper (a plastic or metal tool designed to remove the top layer of bacteria and food buildup).

If you're using a toothbrush, simply place it on the back of your tongue and brush gently in short back-and-forth strokes. The aim is to brush the entire surface of your tongue.

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If you're using a tongue scraper, place it at the back of the tongue and gently pull it forward toward the tip. Do this several times, rinsing the scraper after each pass. "Be careful not to apply too much pressure, as it is possible to cut or injure your tongue," Dr. Wanamaker says.

And while your goal is to reach and remove all the bad bacteria on your tongue, only scrape (or brush) as far back as you feel comfortable (you don't want to trigger a gag reflex).

Also, in case you're wondering, no one tongue-brushing technique is better than the other. There's no reliable evidence that a tongue scraper is more effective than a toothbrush for cleaning your tongue, Dr. Wanamaker says. So, it's mostly a matter of preference.

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4 Benefits of Brushing Your Tongue

Cleaning your tongue touts a ton of health benefits. Here are a few:

1. It Improves Your Breath

The buildup of bacteria on the tongue can lead to stinky breath. Nearly half of adults have halitosis (commonly known as bad breath), according to a 2013 article in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine. And while the condition can come from a non-oral source, 90 percent of the time it's a mouth-related problem, including tongue issues.

Brushing your tongue can help hinder the harmful bacteria that stink things up and give you fresher breath. Indeed, research shows that daily tongue scraping can reduce bacterial coating scores and the volatile sulfur compounds that cause bad breath, Dr. Wanamaker says.

2. It Reduces the Risk of Cavities and Gum Disease

The same bad breath-causing bacteria (and food particles) that accumulate on your tongue's surface may also reach your teeth and gums. And this can contribute to potential problems like cavities or gum disease.

Some studies suggest that brushing the tongue decreases these bad bacteria in the mouth, Dr. Wanamaker says. Case in point: Tongue scraping twice daily for a week significantly reduced the presence of ​mutans streptococci​ and ​lactobacilli​ bacteria (and improved mouth odor), according to a March 2005 study in the Tropical Dental Journal.

However, Dr. Wanamaker points out that other research has shown little to no change in bacteria loads due to how quickly bacteria reproduce.

3. It Helps Prevent Black Hairy Tongue

Black hairy tongue is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It happens when dead skin cells gather on the tongue's surface, per the Mayo Clinic, which causes the papillae (little bumps on the tongue) to grow longer (hence the hairy look) and to collect food and bacteria. (Don't search this in Google Images. Trust us.)

Fortunately, the condition is temporary and harmless, and frequent tongue brushing — in addition to good overall oral hygiene — helps prevent (or get rid of) the condition by removing dead cells, bacteria and food debris.

4. It Enhances Your Taste

In addition to a dark, furry appearance, black hairy tongue can also alter the taste of food, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Again, brushing your tongue can help eliminate the film of dead cells and bacteria and restore your taste buds to normal.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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