Tongue scraping is an oral hygiene practice that has existed for centuries. Adding it to your oral hygiene can help fight bacteria that causes bad breath and dental decay, and it can also improve your sense of taste. So, why is it that we don’t speak of it so often?
It is important that you take care of your oral hygiene, and you may even feel like you are on top of your game when it comes to your toothbrush, dental floss, and mouthwash. And you may be right, although not entirely.
These oral hygiene practices take care of most of the nuisances that cause bad breath and dental decay. The toothbrush and dental floss take care of the teeth, and the mouthwash does the rest of the work, ensuring no bacteria remains hidden in the cracks and crevices of the mouth.
However, there is still one part of the mouth which is responsible for keeping bacteria safe and thriving in your mouth: the tongue. Being one of the largest surfaces in the mouth and an organ we use actively to eat, drink, and taste, the tongue is a perfect place for bacteria to hide and thrive.
And, while your tongue is not at risk of developing cavities itself, these bacteria can easily affect your teeth, cause bad breath, and give your tongue a rather strange look. Unfortunately, rinsing will not help much, as the bacteria are known to stick together and create a biofilm. The only way to remove them is with tongue scraping.
In this article, we will look at what tongue scraping is, why it is beneficial, and how you can implement this practice into your daily oral hygiene to eliminate unnecessary dental decay and bad breath.
The Origins and History of Tongue Cleaning
Tongue cleaning has been used for centuries in Europe, Africa, India, Arabia, and South America. Archaeological finds have uncovered tongue cleaning tools used by many of the ancient cultures, and tongue scraping is still a staple in Ayurvedic medicine and Islamic cultures.
Arabic, African, and Asian oral hygiene traditions that date back to 7,000 years ago involved a thorough oral cleansing method with the use of the miswak, a teeth cleaning twig made from the mustard tree. In a manner specified even in the Koran, they would brush their teeth and use the twig to clean the tongue in the final stage of oral cleansing.
Some of the earlier records of tongue cleaning also involved the use of the ‘datun,’ an Indian toothbrush which was made of a tree wig from an aromatic plant. The ancient Hindus would crush and chew at the end of the green twig until it became a soft brush. After brushing their teeth, they would split the twig, bend it in an inverted V shape, and use it as a tongue scraper.
Ayurvedic medicine has retained the tongue cleaning tradition to this date due to its numerous benefits to oral health. By using tongue scrapers made from copper, silver, gold, tin, or brass, this practice serves to remove the toxic debris, known as ‘ama.’
‘Ama’ means “unripe or undigested,” and, according to Ayurveda, its presence is signified by a coated white tongue, foul breath, and a strong body odor. By scraping the tongue regularly, one can ensure that there would be no ‘ama’ left, thus preserving both oral health and the digestive system.
Furthermore, Ayurveda sees tongue scraping as a means of improving the sense of taste, which is related to one of the five great elements that help the body function properly.
Tongue Cleaning in Western Cultures
The western cultures were a bit late on tongue cleaning practices, with the earliest records dating to 100 AD in ancient Rome. During that period, Romans would clean their tongues using iron tongue scrapers.
It was not until the 15th through the 19th century, however, that the European cultures began using tongue scrapers due to the prevalence of thickly coated tongues. Various inventions were created during this period, with scrapers varying in shape and size, sometimes attached to toothbrushes, and made to prevent the gag reflex that may happen during their use.
However, notwithstanding these inventions, the practice of tongue scraping failed to gain traction and enough popularity to enter the daily oral hygiene in western cultures. The studies related to tongue cleaning were few, and the interest of the people was not piqued enough for mass adoption of this healthy practice.
Luckily, times have changed, and since the twentieth century, the scientific community has been looking into the effectiveness of tongue cleaning and why it should enter daily oral hygiene.
The Benefits of Tongue Scraping
The tongue’s surface (or dorsum) is riddled with papillae, taste buds, crevices, and elevations, which are perfect for bacteria to hide in and between. Rinsing does not help, as the microorganisms in the tongue stick together to create a biofilm.
Perhaps the most visible effect of a bacterial and debris buildup on the tongue is its change in color. Leaving the tongue unchecked for longer periods of time can result in it taking on a white-coated appearance.
The front part of the tongue is less affected, because through speaking, swallowing, and other functions, it repeatedly meets the hard palate, which creates friction. This serves as a self-cleaning method. However, the posterior portion of the tongue does not enjoy that same luxury, and, if you look in the mirror, you might notice that it is therefore different in color.
So, why not remove it? Cleaning the tongue is a mechanical process that can help eliminate the debris buildup, leading to a clean, pink, and attractive tongue.
Fighting Bad Breath
Most bacteria in the mouth are part of the normal oral flora and play a beneficial symbiotic role. They help in breaking down proteins from food in the mouth, which makes it easier for the food to break down in the gut.
However, the byproducts of their work are volatile sulfur compounds and awful-smelling chemicals, explains bacteriologist Dr. Harold Katz. These compounds and chemicals can include Hydrogen Sulfide (the rotten egg smell), and Putrescine and Cadaverine (the smell of rotting flesh).
It is these substances that lead to bad breath and are usually manifested as a coating on the tongue which can be gently scraped away.
Fighting Pathogens and Plaque
Additionally, some bacteria, such as the Mutans streptococci and the Lactobacilli, are pathogenic and can cause caries and periodontal disease. Because of the debris buildup, these bacteria receive nutrients they can feed and thrive on, which ultimately affects your oral health.
Additionally, these bacteria thrive in plaque formations, which can lead to gingivitis. As a study review suggests, tongue scraping has been shown time after time to have a positive effect on reducing plaque formation by over 60 percent.
Through regular scraping (along with brushing and flossing), you work on actively decreasing the count of these pathogens. A study has found that using a tongue scraper twice a day for only a week helps to make a considerable difference.
Improved Sense of Taste
Do not be surprised to learn that your sense of taste can also suffer due to debris buildup and the excretion of foul chemicals and compounds by the bacteria that eat it up. A study has found that by cleaning your tongue regularly for at least two weeks, you can improve the sense of taste and become able to better distinguish between sweet, salty, bitter, and sour sensations.
How to Clean Your Tongue
There are several ways you can clean your tongue naturally. As we already mentioned, certain areas of the tongue (such as the front part) take part in a natural self-cleaning process by being in contact with the hard palate.
However, you should not let that be the only way your tongue is cleaned. A quick search on the internet will give you a list of options you can try to improve your overall tongue hygiene, starting from the most ancient methods of using twigs to the more modern method of using an electric tongue scraper.
Here are some of the ways you can maintain tongue hygiene:
Dry mouth is one of the main causes of bad breath, so before you go looking for ways to maintain proper tongue hygiene, you should check to see if you are drinking enough water. Never underestimate the power of proper hydration.
Teeth Cleaning Twigs
This ancient method of oral hygiene is still considered useful because of the antiseptic and astringent effects of the different types of aromatic twigs. There are different sorts of teeth cleaning twigs you can choose from, such as the miswak and the neem twig.
To use a teeth cleaning twig, you will need to remove the bark at one end, chew on it until it separates like bristles, brush your teeth with it for about 10 minutes, and finally split the twig in half to make a tongue scraper. To scrape your tongue with it, you need to peel the bark from the stick, and use the inner part to gently scrape your tongue moving from the back of the tongue toward the tip.
Unlike toothbrushes, tongue brushes are wider and made specially for tongue hygiene. They work by scraping the surface and getting between the crevices to remove any excess debris. Although effective, they are not as effective as tongue scrapers.
Tongue scrapers have been proven time after time as the best way to clean your tongue. They are usually U or V-shaped and come in different forms and styles and are made of different materials. They work by gently cleaning the surface of the tongue, removing the excess debris buildup along with the biofilm created by the bacteria that live on your tongue.
You can find tongue scrapers made of different metals, such as silver or copper, as well as plastic ones and even electric ones.
Should You Brush Your Tongue with a Toothbrush?
While you may think that cleaning your tongue with a toothbrush will help to eliminate the excess debris from your tongue, the truth is that this method is not very effective, and it can even push the debris deeper inside the tongue’s texture.
Some toothbrushes come with a scrape-like texture at the back, which can serve a purpose. However, the toothbrushes are small, as they are made for teeth. So, it is best that you limit them to that purpose.
As Healthline notes, “although cleaning your tongue with a toothbrush is better than not cleaning it at all, using a tongue scraper is more effective.”
When and How to Use a Tongue Scraper
If you want to see real results, it is best that you use a tongue scraper at least twice a day, along with your typical oral hygiene routine. Do it once you have brushed and flossed as a finishing step.
However, note that, depending on your diet, you might want to scrape your tongue after a meal if you want to truly eliminate bad breath. In any case, scraping in the morning and before you go to bed is a great way to get a head start on improving your oral hygiene.
To clean your tongue with a tongue scraper, follow these steps:
- Get in front of a mirror, open your mouth, and stick out your tongue;
- Gently touch the back end of your tongue with the rounded end of the tongue scraper (or go as far back as you feel comfortable);
- Slowly pull forward toward the tip of your tongue (do not press too hard, or you might hurt your tongue);
- Clean the tongue scraper with a washcloth or tissue after each motion to remove debris;
- Repeat until you’ve scraped the entire surface of your tongue;
- Rinse with warm or room temperature water; and
- Wash the tongue scraper with warm water and soap and store it in a dry place.
Some Tips and Tricks of Tongue Scraping
How should you clean the back of the tongue? Scraping the back of your tongue may induce a gag reflex, which may - in extreme cases - even cause you to vomit. This is a natural reflex and it takes some getting used to before you stop experiencing it. However, until then, you could start by scraping from the middle of the tongue forward and go further back as far as you can until you become more accustomed to the practice.
When you scrape your tongue, make sure you do it gently. There is no need to press too hard, as the scraper is not meant for peeling your tongue’s surface. Otherwise, you might hurt your tongue.
You want the pressure to be firm enough to scrape up excess debris, but gentle enough to avoid harming the skin or the taste buds. Also, to avoid damaging your tongue, ensure that the tongue scraper does not have any uneven or rough edges.
Tongue scraping usually takes around two minutes. Ayurveda recommends repeating scraping the entire surface anywhere between 7 and 14 times (9 times being the optimal number). However, if you do not feel comfortable with it in the beginning, you can start by scraping your tongue only two times per session and increase as you get accustomed to it.
When rinsing your mouth after scraping, you could add some salt and even a pinch of turmeric to the water for an added antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effect.
Finally, do not replace tongue scraping for the much-needed teeth brushing and flossing. They go great with tongue scraping, but without them, you would not achieve much of anything with tongue scraping because bacteria would still be present in other parts of your mouth
The Benefits of Using a Copper Tongue Scraper
A copper tongue scraper is an excellent option and among some of the best tongue scrapers. This is because copper has excellent alkalizing and antibacterial properties which can only boost the effectiveness of scraping.
Research shows that copper is excellent for restricting pathogen growth, killing bacteria, yeasts, and viruses on contact. In addition to that, copper provides important enzymes needed for the healthy microbes in the mouth to survive and fight off invasive pathogenic bacteria.
This makes a copper tongue scraper one of the best tongue cleaning tools available. Combine it with some copper-infused water rinse once you are done scraping, and you get a powerful combination that is bound to eliminate anything that stands in the way of your oral health.
The Bottom Line
The benefits of tongue scraping have been known for centuries by many cultures around the world. It is one of the oldest oral hygiene practices and one which is still highly regarded to this day.
However, do not underestimate the importance of brushing and flossing regularly. Use tongue scraping in addition to these habits to achieve the best results. And finally, do not forget to visit your dentist regularly – some problems cannot be solved with scraping.
About the Authors: This article was collaboratively written by our team of researchers and writers with the benefit of all available scientific studies and other relevant literature. Our team of researchers and writers include experienced health researchers including a qualified medical professional. Please note that information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.