How to clean the back of the tongue

Why you should be cleaning the back of your tongue

Cleaning your tongue has been practiced for centuries in the East, but Westerners didn't start doing so until recently. Cleaning your tongue regularly can help prevent bad breath, tongue coating, plaque buildup, and other oral hygiene issues.

Research has shown that some tongue scrapers are the best tools for cleaning your tongue. But regular brushing the tongue and using certain mouthwashes can also be beneficial.

In this article, we'll review the most common tongue cleaning methods, how effective they are, how to use them, and how to avoid a gag reflex when using them.

Tongue Scraping

What does a tongue scraper do?

A tongue scraper can help reduce the bacteria in your mouth that cause bad breath, tooth decay, and gum disease.

Sometimes, oral microbiome dysbiosis leads to the growth of bacteria on the tongue that causes bad breath, such as Solobacterium moorei or Granulicatella adiacens. These bacteria can be reduced by tongue scraping, but they can still grow back each day. However, bacteria on the gums will be unaffected by tongue scraping.

How to use a tongue scraper

Here's how to clean your tongue using a tongue scraper:

  1. Choose a tongue scraping instrument. Tongue scrapers come in both metal and plastic materials.
  2. Stick out your tongue as far as is comfortable.
  3. Place your tongue scraper on the back of your tongue.
  4. Press the tongue scraper down against your tongue and drag it toward the front of your tongue.
  5. Clean the tongue scraper under warm water to remove debris and bacteria from it. Spit excess saliva that may have built up during the process.
  6. Repeat steps 2 to 5 several times. As needed, adjust the placement and the pressure you apply to it to prevent a gag reflex.
  7. Clean and dry the tongue scraper and store it for subsequent use. You can scrape your tongue one-to-two times a day. If you gag during the process, you may want to scrape your tongue before eating breakfast to avoid vomiting.

How often should you scrape your tongue?

Try tongue scraping at least daily as part of your morning oral hygiene routine.

By tongue scraping daily, you might help reduce the abundance of those bad breath-causing bacteria and should help reduce white coating. However, they will still grow back each day, typically overnight as you sleep. By adding tongue scraping to your morning routine, you may be able to hold off bad breath for half of the day, but it inevitably returns by night and often by the following morning. Make sure you clean your tongue scraper after using it!

How effective is tongue scraping?

Regular tongue scraping has been found to reduce the levels of VSCs in people with bad breath by 30-75%.

A 2001 study looked at the effectiveness of different tongue cleaning approaches in lowering oral VSC levels. They used a combination brush and scraper tool, a tongue scraper, and a standard toothbrush. The tests showed a 42%, 40%, and 30% reduction in VSC levels, respectively.

The reduction in VSC levels lasted significantly longer in patients who used the tongue scraper, but after 30 minutes, the reduction in all cases could not be detected.

Using a toothbrush to clean your tongue

How to clean your tongue with a toothbrush

Using a soft toothbrush to clean your tongue is another effective and convenient option. Some toothbrushes even have a tongue cleaner built in. Here's how to clean your tongue with a toothbrush:

  1. Put a small amount of toothpaste on the brush
  2. Start brushing from the back of your tongue to the front.
  3. Wash your mouth out with water after finishing

Mouthwash or Mouth Rinses

Multiple types of mouthwash have received the ADA seal of acceptance and have been found effective in cleaning the tongue. These mouth rinses contain different active ingredients and approaches to lower the levels of odor-causing bacteria and the VSCs that they produce.

Academic reviews have found that mouthwashes containing chlorhexidine (CHX), cetylpyridinium chloride, and zinc are effective in reducing bad breath symptoms. After three and six months, people using the zinc acetate/CHX rinse showed significant reductions in their levels of VSCs.

However, prolonged usage of CHX mouthwash has potential disadvantages, including staining of the teeth and tongue, a metallic sensation after use, or reduced taste perception. However, with regular rinsing after CHX usage, the study group showed no differences in tooth staining.

These approaches simply reduce the abundance of all bacteria and can kill the diversity of the oral microbiome. Bad breath sufferers can consider mouthwashes a short-term solution when used with other oral hygiene recommendations but likely not a long-term fix.

How to avoid gag reflex when cleaning your tongue

One potential issue with cleaning the back of your tongue is triggering your gag reflex. There are a few things you can try to prevent activating your gag reflex.


Some people have found gumming while cleaning their tongue can help reduce sensitivity and prevent the gag reflex.

Breathe through your nose

Mouth breathing while cleaning your tongue can make you more sensitive to gagging. To prevent this, try to breathe through your nose, with rapid, short breaths to reduce the gag reflex.

Clench your Fist

Clenching your first has been found to rapidly full the gag reflex, allowing you to clean the back of your tongue. Just clench your fist with your thumb tucked inside, and squeeze hard.

Benefits of cleaning your tongue

The tongue is an ideal home for different types of bacteria and fungi that can hide in its crevices. Regularly cleaning your tongue can help reduce the buildup of these bacteria, and reduce your risk of symptoms like bad breath, tongue coating, and more.

When to see a dentist

If you see any changes to your tongue that feel unusual, you should visit your dentist or doctor. These changes can include:

  • A white appearance or white patches, which may be symptomatic of conditions like oral thrush, leukoplakia, oral lichen planus, and oral cancer
  • Red or pink patches that develop on the tongue
  • A smooth or glossy look to the tongue
  • A yellow, black, or hairy look
  • Soreness or lumps that do not resolve after a few weeks


Incorporating tongue scraping into your daily hygiene practice is a great way to level up your oral health. Tongue scraping, brushing with a toothbrush, and several mouthwashes are great options for cleaning the back of your tongue.

Want to learn more about the bacteria that build up on the back of your tongue, and can lead to bad breath? You can test your oral bacteria with the Bristle Oral Health test.

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