You’ve got your tooth brushing routine down pat. Twice a day, every day, you scrub down each tooth with a soft-bristled toothbrush and a fluoride toothpaste, just like your dentist recommended at your last cleaning. You make sure to dedicate a full two minutes to the task, too — none of that rushed, ineffective tooth brushing for you. Next comes a brisk flossing, getting in between every set of teeth. Finally, to tame bad breath, you swish some mouthwash around in there.
So after all that, why does your mouth sometimes still taste and smell bad? The answer might be simpler than you think: You missed your tongue.
Bacteria and the Tongue
Your mouth, including your tongue, plays host to a wide variety of different kinds of bacteria. While some bacteria can cause cavities and gum disease, most of the bacteria in your mouth are largely harmless. In fact, many of them help defend your body from disease. Some of these bacteria live on your tongue, where they can become trapped under your tongue’s protective mucus layer.
Just like any living organism, these bacteria feed on some substances and produce others, and one of the substances they can produce is a highly odorous sulfur compound. It’s this collection of trapped bacteria that can create that unpleasant taste at the back of your mouth that often heralds some particularly bad breath. And if you’re dehydrated or suffer from a dry mouth for other reasons (some medications cause dry mouth, for example), that effect can be amplified. Even a thorough tooth brushing may not completely treat this taste and scent, and many mouthwashes will only mask it.
Brush Your Tongue, Too
The solution? Just extend that tooth brushing vigor to your tongue! You can use your standard toothbrush to gently brush your tongue, starting towards the back of the tongue (be careful not to brush too far back and trigger your gag reflex!) and working your way forward. Some toothbrushes have a built-in tongue cleaner on the reverse side of the toothbrush head. Or, if you want a tool specifically built for the job, you may want to pick up a tongue scraper: A flexible piece of plastic made to help remove that thin mucus layer from the tongue.
No matter what tool you’re using to clean your tongue, it should be gentle. You don’t need to rub your tongue raw to clean it — the mucus and bacteria should come off easily with a light cleaning.
If you work tongue cleaning into your regular routine, brushing or scraping your tongue twice a day, you will likely see an improvement in your breath. Plus, if you find that you’ve developed bad breath at some point during the day, a quick tongue cleaning can usually put a stop to it. But bad breath has long been a problem, and it can be due to many causes. If good hygiene doesn’t resolve your bad breath, it may be a symptom of gum disease.