Is tongue brushing necessary?

Dear Alice,

Here's a question I have been debating with a friend for a while, and seeing as how I'm not scheduled to go to the dentist again for a while, I thought you could shed some light on the issue: when brushing one's teeth, should one also brush one's tongue? I would think yes, because what's the point of brushing germs off teeth if the tongue still has them there, and will transfer them to the teeth as soon as you're done brushing. My friend thinks it makes absolutely no difference. So does it matter? We have an ice cream wagered on this one! I hope I'm right!

Dear Reader, 

Kudos to you and your friend for discussing dental hygiene! Tongue brushing, in contrast to teeth brushing, is really more of an option than a necessity. Unlike brushing your tongue, brushing your teeth actually breaks up the plaque that forms in everyone's mouth, rather than removing germs. During the day, bacteria colonize the food particles that remain in your mouth after eating. The accumulation of food and bacteria produces plaque, which takes approximately 24 hours to form. Thorough brushing every day keeps the bacteria from sticking, which is the key to healthy teeth. 

In terms of tongue brushing, the main purpose is to remove stuck food particles before they cause odor. Some people need to do this often, and others don’t need to do it at all. Generally, the tongue tends to be self-cleaning, given that it’s a movable surface and is constantly bathed in saliva, so remnants of meals don't hang around for too long. Your teeth are also covered in saliva, but since they're hard and immovable, the food has a chance to latch on and stay put. That said, when it comes to fighting against less than fresh mouth odor in the short-term (a few hours), some research has suggested that tongue brushing or scraping may be more effective when it comes to battling malodorous breath than just brushing teeth alone. 

For those interested in another tool to fight bad breath, taking time to attend to the tongue may help. Special tongue scrapers are available at many grocery stores or pharmacies; they’re usually handled, teardrop-shaped devices with ridges. The only benefit to these tongue scrapers is that they’re less likely to hit the back of the throat and cause the gag reflex. They are by no means necessary though, since the same results can be accomplished with a regular old toothbrush. If you choose to pick up a tongue scraper, it’s best to consider adopting its use as a part of your oral hygiene arsenal, which is recommended to consist of: 

  • Brushing teeth twice a day 
  • Flossing 
  • Rinse and gargle using mouthwash 
  • Drinking plenty of water 
  • Regularly visiting the dentist 

So, since there's truth in what both you and your friend thought, why not buy each other some ice cream? Enjoy! 

Last updated Oct 01, 2021
Originally published May 21, 1999

Can’t find information on the site about your health concern or issue?