If you brush your teeth twice a day and floss daily, you probably think that you’re excelling at oral hygiene. But as it turns out, you’re missing a crucial step in your routine that could actually thwart all your efforts.
“A lot of people don’t know that brushing or scraping their tongue is a really important step for maintaining a healthy mouth,” says Dr. LouAnn Visconti, president of the Ontario Dental Association. “When you think about the tongue, it’s not smooth and has lots of crevasses, which are great places for bacteria that lies in the mouth to accumulate.”
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This won’t just lead to bad breath, but could also contribute to cavities. That’s because your tongue houses cavity-causing bacteria that takes the sugars in plaque and creates acid that will erode the enamel and dissolve it, thus creating a cavity.
But before you start gargling with mouthwash to get rid of the bacteria, think again.
“Rinsing with mouthwash or drinking water will only take off the top layer of film, it won’t get to the bacteria underneath. That has to be physically removed because it adheres to the tongue pretty well,” Visconti says.
She recognizes that brushing your tongue can evoke a gag reflex, that’s why she suggests getting a tongue scraper, which can be purchased at your local drug store — although you may want to discuss the best kind for you with your dentist. Although, if you don’t mind using your toothbrush to clean your tongue, you can forgo the scraper. There’s no evidence that one is better or more effective than the other, she says.
In the event that you can’t brush or scrape after a meal, there are some foods you can eat that will help cleanse your mouth.
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However, they won’t do anything for your tongue.
There are some visible clues you can look for to determine if your tongue is healthy. Visconti cites things like canker sores and a condition called geographic tongue, where you’ll see patchy spots on the tongue.
“We don’t know why this occurs, but we do know that the tongue will suffer if it isn’t healthy. It’s good to inspect your tongue regularly and to lift it to make sure there’s nothing underneath.”
While tongue cleaning may be a new concept to a lot of people, Visconti assures that dentists have been recommending it for as long as they’ve been advising people to brush before bed.
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“My colleagues all tell their patients to brush their tongues, and your dentist and hygienist have probably told you, too,” she says. “It’s part of the general oral hygiene routine. But whether or not patients want to hear it is another thing.”
The fact remains, however, that your tongue is just as important to clean as your teeth and gums, and ignoring it could lead to serious oral issues.