What Is Tongue Scraping, How to Do It and Does It Work?
In addition to brushing and flossing your teeth, there’s another practice you may want to add to your oral health routine: tongue scraping.
Dating back at least 2,000 years, tongue scraping offers several health benefits, such as fewer cavities, fresher breath and better sense of taste.
There’s an estimated 700 types of bacteria and fungi living in the mouth, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some are good bacteria that help fight off gum disease, while some are bad bacteria that contribute to cavities, plaque buildup and bad breath, also called halitosis. Some bacteria stick to the teeth, but they can also collect on the tongue. Tongue scraping is meant to maintain the right balance between good and bad bacteria.
“Most studies or reviews on this topic have small sample sizes, which makes it difficult for doctors to make firm conclusions regarding tongue scraping and its benefits,” says Dr. Sally Cram, a private practice periodontist and advisor to the American Dental Association in Washington, D.C.
What Is Tongue Scraping?
The surface of the tongue is covered with thousands of little hair-like projections, called papillae, and taste buds. Tongue scraping removes bacteria, food particles, dead cells and debris that can build up around the papillae on the tongue.
Tongue scraping can be done with metal or plastic tongue scrapers, which are available for purchase online or at your local drugstore. Toothbrushes can also be used, but experts recommend using a tool specifically for tongue scraping to better remove bacteria.
Tongue scraping may be especially useful for those with a coated tongue, which is a buildup of bacteria or dead cells that gives the tongue a white, yellow or brown appearance.
“Tongue scraping is probably most beneficial for people who may have a thick white or brown coating on their tongue due to dry mouth, smoking, poor toothbrushing habits or oral yeast infections,” Cram says.
What Are the Benefits of Tongue Scraping?
In contrast to brushing and flossing research, there is a paucity of well-controlled studies examining tongue scraping. However, of the available research, studies suggest that there are several benefits of tongue scraping, including:
Tongue scraping, along with brushing and flossing, removes bacteria and food debris to help freshen breath and leave the mouth with a refreshing feeling. In a small 2017 study in the Journal of Periodontal Research, researchers evaluated the effects of cleaning the tongue with a scraper or a toothbrush among 18 participants with gum disease for two weeks. Although the findings did not show that tongue cleaning lowered the number of bacteria in the saliva or the tongue coating, the coating on the tongue was significantly reduced and participants did report that their tongue felt cleaner at the end of the study.
When regular brushing and flossing are not followed, food remains in the mouth. This can lead to odor-causing bacteria and food rot that results in bad breath.
Research from South Korea showed that there is a reduction in bad breath and tongue coating following the use of tongue scraping. The 2022 study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, enrolled 56 participants randomized into three groups to scrape tongues: a toothbrush group, a tongue scraper group and toothbrush and tongue scraper group. There was a reduction in bad breath across the groups with no major difference in tongue scraping methods.
Tongue scraping will not prevent bad breath from developing later in the day after meals so scraping after every meal to reduce bad breath is recommended.
Some people develop a white, yellow or brown coated tongue from excess food particles and debris in the mouth. Tongue scraping can reduce the tongue’s discolored appearance and reduce the coating on the tongue, according to a 2010 review of multiple studies published in the International Journal of Dental Hygiene.
Taste sensation was enhanced after two weeks of tongue scraping, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Periodontology. Among 16 non-smoking adults, researchers evaluated taste for bitter, sweet, salt and sour and found improvements in taste sensation and a significant decrease of tongue coating.
Less plaque and buildup
A 2013 study found that the children who followed tongue scraping or brushing significantly reduced plaque levels after 10 and 21 days. The study, published in the International Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry, divided 15 children at the same boarding school into three groups: one group performed tongue scraping with a scraper, another group did tongue brushing and the third group did tooth brushing alone.
Lower bacteria levels
In a 2014 study, published in BMC Oral Health, 30 healthy adults were assessed for changes in the amount of bacteria on the tongue with and without tongue scraping. One group of study participants scraped their tongues and the other group did not, followed by a three-week period in which participants returned to their normal dental hygiene. After this period, the participants were switched to the alternate group to scrape their tongue or no tongue cleaning. The researchers found that tongue scraping reduced the levels of bacteria coating the tongue, but there was no effect in lowering plaque buildup.
Heightened nitric oxide levels
Good oral health is also tied with heart disease prevention. Studies have shown that tongue cleaning can promote the oral microbiome and improve the production of nitric oxide, an essential molecule that plays an important role in the cardiovascular system.
“Scraping the tongue disrupts the biofilms and opens up the crevices of the tongue, allowing for a greater diversity of oral bacteria in the mouth,” explains Nathan Bryan, a molecular medicine and nitric oxide biochemistry expert in Austin, Texas.
This microbial diversity is critical to maintaining a balance between good and bad oral bacteria.
In a 2009 study, published in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology journal, Bryan and his team of researchers showed that management of the tongue microbiome by regular cleaning can help increase nitric oxide levels and, as a result, improve resting systolic blood pressure.
“In my research – and that done by others – we have identified select bacteria that are responsible for metabolizing nitrate, found in green leafy vegetables, so the body can produce nitric oxide, an important molecule naturally produced in the body that regulates blood pressure, oxygen delivery and controls vascular inflammation,” Bryan says.
How to Scrape your Tongue
Tongue scraping is safe and provides several oral health benefits when done properly. After brushing and flossing your teeth, follow these simple steps to add tongue scraping to your dental hygiene routine:
- Start by standing in front of a mirror and sticking out your tongue.
- Take scraper as far back on the tongue as possible without causing a gag reflex.
- Apply moderate pressure and slowly pull the scraper forward across the tongue’s surface. Scraping too hard may cause irritation or damage your taste buds.
- Clean the scraper between each scrape to get rid of any bacteria.
- Repeat this process two to three times.
- Rinse your mouth with water once you’ve completed scraping your tongue.
- Clean the tongue scraper with warm, soapy water and let it dry.
Scraping your tongue daily or twice daily to complement your dental hygiene routine is recommended.
Types of Tongue Scrapers
There are several tongue scraper options, including brush, metal and plastic scrapers. While they are all effective in cleaning the tongue, deciding which one to add to your oral hygiene routine is your personal preference.
- Brush scrapers: The brush versions look like longer toothbrushes with easy-to-grip handles, but with little spongey bristles at the end that are sturdy and not rough on the tongue.
- Metal scrapers: Most metal scrapers are rounded in a U-shape curve with two handles for improved gripping. There are several styles to choose from in different materials, like copper and stainless steel.
- Plastic scrapers: Similar to metal scrapers, plastic versions also come in U-shaped forms and are sometimes less costly.
Most tools range from $5 to $10.
Ultimately, regardless of what type of tongue scraper you choose, cleaning your tongue is a good way to complement your regular brushing and flossing routine and improve your overall oral health.