It may be Teeth Week, but we’d be remiss not to talk about tongues. Sure, we all know that you should brush your teeth twice a day (and use tools to clean in between them). But what should you do about your tongue, and how often? The official word from the American Dental Association is that there is no evidence that cleaning your tongue will keep away bad breath or fix halitosis, but it does say doing so can be “a great way to go the extra mile for your mouth.” We, of course, are all about going that extra mile (this week especially).
“The tongue is like a carpet — it collects a lot of junk and should be cleaned every day,” according to noted cool dentist Dr. Jennifer Plotnick. She says that what you’re actually cleaning are the “papillae,” or the little fleshy structures that coat the tongue’s surface, which are where dead cells, food debris, and bacteria can accumulate and ultimately cause bad breath. If that doesn’t make you want to reach for the tongue scraper, we’re not sure what will. Below, the dentists, dental hygienists, and otolaryngologists we talked to recommend the best tools for cleaning your tongue.
Best overall tool for cleaning your tongue
All of the experts we spoke to agreed that you should clean your tongue at least once a day, and most said that a simpler routine is better. One great option is a toothbrush (which we’ll get to in a minute), but if you really want to get down to the nitty gritty of tongue cleaning, you can’t beat a metal tongue scraper like this one. Dr. Michelle Yagoda, attending otolaryngologist and facial plastic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital, says that tongue brushes and scrapers can be used to treat physiologic halitosis, the origin of which is “often post-nasal drip, gastroesophageal reflux, or poor dental hygiene.” If you suspect any of these issues is causing your bad breath, Yagoda also suggests treating those directly — but in the meantime, a scraper will really help alleviate bad breath.
Plotnick also recommends Dr. Tung’s scraper, but says that “any stainless-steel scraper will do.” She notes that plastic scrapers are less durable and harder to sterilize. To get the most out of your tongue scraping, Plotnick encourages patients to use the tool first thing in the morning, and says for the best results you should stick your tongue out all the way and scrape from the very back to the tip, never in reverse. “Rinse the scraper after each pass to avoid re-depositing any debris back on the tongue,” she says. “Keep going until the scraper no longer picks anything up and your tongue is a fleshy, pink color.”
Best U-shaped tongue scraper
If you want to go the tongue scraper route, you have other options — namely two, which Steven Smith, a dental hygienist at Nassau Street Dental, classifies by shape: U-shape and T-shape. “For patients with no difficulty using their hands, I recommend disposable U-shaped scrapers,” says Dr. Smith. “They are very soft and flexible allowing anyone to contour it to any portion of the tongue, including the very-difficult-to-reach back of the tongue.” He says that their flexibility and simplicity in design makes it easier to avoid having a gag reflex, and since they’re disposable and don’t have bristles (like a toothbrush), they’re more sanitary and collect less bacteria. His pick for a U-shaped scraper is one from the brand Scrapeyourtongue.com.
Best T-shaped tongue scraper
“For patients with limited dexterity in their hands as a result of arthritis or carpal tunnel, the T-shaped scrapers are best,” Smith says. He compares the handle design to that of a toothbrush, and says that for those suffering with arthritis, it can make a big difference to have a tool you can hold in your palm, rather than between your finger tips. “For those who still have difficulty holding the handle as they can be fairly slim, they can try slicing a small hole in a tennis ball and placing the handle inside allowing greater surface area to hold on to.” For this shape, Smith recommends the Wondrous Clean Tongue Wand.
Best tongue brush
“For patients with deep grooves in the tongue we refer to as fissures, I recommend tongue brushes as they can dislodge food particles and bacteria trapped between taste buds and fissures alike,” says Smith. He notes that if food gets trapped in those fissures, bacteria can grow and then break down to release noxious gases, a.k.a. bad breath. And if you’re someone with deep tongue grooves, it’s a good idea to specifically invest in a tongue brush, rather than a toothbrush you can also use to clean your tongue. “As tempting as it is to assume the toothbrush would do the same job as a tongue brush, toothbrush bristles are too soft because they are designed to brush teeth but not damage enamel so they tend not to remove enough biofilm from the tongue,” says Smith. He recommends giving Orabrush a try.
Best toothbrushes for cleaning your tongue
Still, if you’re looking to streamline your dental-hygiene routine (but still want to clean your tongue), a toothbrush with a built-in tongue and cheek scraper is a good choice. “I am all about convenience which leads to good compliance and good oral health. Keep it simple,” says Dr. Golda Erdfarb, a professor at Touro College of Dental Medicine, who recommends the Colgate 360 with a built-in tongue and cheek scraper. “Many toothbrushes have these on the back of the head of the toothbrush … I think this is a feature that is commonly overlooked by consumers.”
Best alcohol-free mouthwashes for a clean tongue
Dr. Mitch Zientz, a dentist at Wellspring Dental, tells us that studies show “a broad range in the amount and types of bacteria that grow on the tongue.” That bacteria grows on the whole tongue, so even if you use a scraper, you may not be able to get all of it. He suggests rinsing with an alcohol-free mouthwash as a way to clean those harder-to-reach areas of the tongue. “We commonly suggest Crest Pro Health or Listerine Total Care Zero,” he says. “These rinses help to control the bacteria from areas one cannot mechanically clean and in your mouth overall. We stress the alcohol-free part, because although the alcohol leaves that astringent, fresh feeling, it contributes to drying things out and is counterproductive in that regard.” Follow Zientz’s full routine — a thorough tongue brushing, followed by a good floss, and rinse with some alcohol-free fluoride mouthwash — and then, he says, “You’ll be prime time for some close talking on the subway or a 10-second Frencher on Friday night.”
Best (natural) alcohol-free mouthwash for a clean tongue
If you prefer to use all-natural products, Yagoda likes this alcohol-free, homeopathic rinse from Alkalol which, though labeled as a Nasal Wash, is good for your mouth, too. She recommends Alkalol because “it is bacteriostatic (makes an environment that it’s hard for bacteria to live in), mucolytic (thins out the mucus so that it’s hard for bacteria to live in it), and refreshing.” She stresses that sticking to alcohol-free rinses or washes is important, as generally “mouthwashes containing alcohol increase the risk of oral cancer.” And she does not recommend popping a piece of Dentyne in lieu of using mouth wash, because “chewing gum can produce methyl mercaptan, one of the principal components of oral malodour, leading to persistent halitosis.”
Best mouth spray for tongues
“In conjunction with your tongue scraper, you may also spray the tongue with an antibacterial spray prior to scraping to aid in further removal of as much bacteria as possible,” says Smith. He recommends BreathRx (and we like this handy two-pack, which comes with a pair of plastic tongue scrapers and seems perfect for freshening up on the go.)
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