Cleaning your tongue without gagging can be a frustrating experience.
The gag reflex which causes us to recoil actually varies in intensity between people; some can scrub away at their tongue without issue, while other people struggle.
Fortunately, your gag reflex is not “fixed”, and given time it is possible to reduce it enough to make cleaning your tongue far easier and more pleasant.
With a little patience most people can soon clean the back of their tongue without issue.
What Makes Us Gag?
The gag reflex – more scientifically known as the “pharyngeal reflex” – serves a very important purpose(1). When an object touches the roof of the mouth, back of the tongue or the area around the tonsils the throat closes up to prevent us choking.
In more extreme cases this same gag reflex can also lead to vomiting, to rid us of the foreign object in our throat. This is especially important in babies, whose gag reflex starts to relax with age, allowing them to consume solid foods rather than milk in time.
Quite why this reflex survives into adulthood is not properly understood, though it is interesting that we all experience different thresholds. One previous scientific study(2) found that 37% of those people suffered had no gag reflex whatsoever, while others were found to have a hyperactive response.
If you’re reading this article then you’re almost certainly in the second category, though repeated studies have found that it is possible to quickly desensitise yourself. No matter how difficult you find it now to clean your tongue without gagging, by following a few simple techniques you’ll be soon be scrubbing away with aplomb.
Do I Really Need to Clean My Tongue?
Surprisingly, it has been estimated that between 50%(3) and 90%(4) of halitosis can be traced back to residues on the tongue. Indeed, it is the back of the tongue where the vast majority of sulphur-producing bacteria can be found.
At the same time, using a tongue scraper or cleaner has been shown to have a noticeable impact on bacterial load – and as a result how fresh your breath smells. For example, one study found that brushing alone reduced the production of volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs) by 45%, while scraping the tongue did considerably better with a 75% reduction(3). A further study found that cleaning the tongue twice a day was directly related to a significant decrease in malodourous breath(5).
However, cleaning your tongue doesn’t just help to keep your breath fresh.
Studies have also shown that after a few weeks of cleaning your tongue many people find that their sense of taste increases too – meaning you’ll enjoy your food more(6).
In other words, cleaning your tongue should be seen as an important and integral part of your daily oral hygiene routine. As a result, learning how to clean your tongue without gagging is a worthwhile skill to learn – and may be easier than you expected.
How to Clean Your Tongue Without Gagging
The gag reflex, like so many others, is not “fixed”. There are a range of techniques which have been found to help fight the compulsion to gag when scrubbing the back of your tongue.
One of the most effective techniques for cleaning your tongue without gagging is to gently desensitize yourself. Rather like getting your dog used to fireworks, introducing the stimulus gently and repeatedly can allow you to overcome your gag reflex.
Here’s how to do it…
- Moisten a soft toothbrush.
- Stick out your tongue as far as you possibly can, and try to press the tongue down against the floor of the mouth. This provides additional space to work with before you get to the back of your mouth.
- Next, gently start to rub the front of your tongue with the brush, slowly working your way back.
- As you start to feel the first twinge of your reflex, focus on just that area. Do not move your brush back any further.
- Massage this area gently with the toothbrush for 10 seconds then stop.
- Repeat this process once or twice a day, and over time you’ll naturally find that you’re able to move further and further back.
In time, most people find they can desensitise their tongue enough to clean all the way to the back without gagging.
Some people find that gently humming to themselves while cleaning their tongue, or saying “arghhh!” as you might when the doctor looks down your throat can also help to reduce sensitivity.
Change Your Breathing
Breathing through your mouth tends to make us more sensitive to the gag reflex. Instead, take care to breathe through your nose. Some people find that taking more rapid, shorter breaths can also help to reduce sensitivity(7).
Make a Fist
An interesting scientific study, proved in the real world by numerous people, relies on a pressure point in the palm of your hand. Pushing this pressure point seems to rapidly dull the gag reflex, allowing many people to clean their tongue without gagging(8).
All you need to do is make a fist with your thumb tucked inside, and squeeze hard. This can also be a useful technique to remember if you’re unlucky enough to suffer from gagging while at the dentist.
Most people naturally clean their tongue from front to back, pushing their toothbrush or tongue scraper deeper and deeper into their mouths. This “movement” from font-to-back can increase the sensitivity of the gag reflex.
Interestingly, brushing using a side-to-side direction can often help to avoid tongue sensitivity, letting you gently work your way back along the tongue without gagging unpleasantly.
Use a Scraper (Not a Toothbrush)
Toothbrushes, with their high profile, tend to be more likely to cause gagging.
However, tongue scrapers or cleaners, with their lower profile, are easier to use. They allow you to get further back along your tongue without touching the sensitive roof of the mouth.
So if you’re struggling to clean your tongue without gagging consider ditching the toothbrush and instead investing in a professional tongue scraper which takes up less vertical room in your mouth.
Clean on an Empty Stomach
Interestingly, some people have found their gag reflex is strongest after a larger meal. Equally, cleaning your tongue on an empty stomach can have quite the opposite effect.
If you struggle to clean your tongue without gagging then doing so first thing in the morning can be surprisingly effective, rather than leaving your scraping till after breakfast.
Use Dental Floss
Lastly, if you’ve patiently tried all the tips included in this article but you’re still fighting against your gag reflex then a secondary trick is to use dental floss instead of a toothbrush or scraper. While generally accepted as being less effective than other tools, the small size of dental floss – which can be easily dragged across the tongue – can act as a useful alternative method.
How to Clean Your Tongue Properly
So now you know how to gently rid yourself of your gag reflex, the last question is how you should clean your tongue properly. Fortunately, a number of dental experts have analysed how best to clean bacteria and debris from your tongue(9).
The recommended strategy is as follows:
- Stick out your tongue as far as possible.
- Inspect your tongue in your bathroom mirror. Most debris can be easily observed as a white colouration on the tongue, which can vary between a subtle discoloration to a thick and fluffy consistency. Aim to identify the area most affected so you know where to direct your attention.
- Place your tongue cleaner or scraper onto the tongue, being sure to target the area most-affected.
- Press down gently with the scraper to ensure proper contact is made – but don’t press too hard or you risk causing damage to your tongue.
- Firmly pull the cleaner towards the tip of the tongue and remove from the mouth.
- Rinse the scraper clean under a running tap to remove removed debris.
- Repeat steps 3-6 until no more debris can be removed.
- Finish off with a good-quality anti-bacterial mouthwash to kill further bacteria and reduce further build-ups of tongue film.
- (1) Phayngeal reflex. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
- (2) Davies, A. E. at al. 1995. Pharyngeal sensation and gag reflex in healthy subjects. The Lancet 345(8948), pp 487-488. Available at: http://www.thelancet.com/
- (3) Pedrazzi, V et al. 2004. Tongue-cleaning methods: a comparative clinical trial employing a toothbrush and a tongue scraper. Journal of Periodontology 75(5), pp 1009-1012. Available at: http://www.joponline.org/
- (4) Christensen, G. 1998. Why clean your tongue? Journal of the American Dental Association 129(11), pp 1605-1607. Available at: http://jada.ada.org/
- (5) Van der Sleen, M et al. 2010. Effectiveness of mechanical tongue cleaning on breath odour and tongue coating: a systemaic review. International Journal of Dental Hygiene 8(4), pp 258-268. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/
- (6) Quirynen, M et al. 2004. Impact of tongue cleansers on microbial loan and taste. Journal of Clinical Periodontology 31(7), pp 506-510. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/
- (7) CHaffee, R., Zabara, J., Tansy, M. 1970. Suppression of the gag reflex by exaggerated respiratory movements. Journal of Dental Research 49(3), pp 572-575. Available at: http://jdr.sagepub.com/
- (8) Scarborough, D., Bailey Van Kuren, M., Hughes, M. 2008. Altering the gag reflex via a palm pressure point. The Journal of the American Dental Association 139(10), pp 1365-1372. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/
- (9) Danser, M., Mantilla Gomez, S., Van der Weijden, G. 2003. Tongue coating and tongue brushing: a literature review. International Journal of Dental Hygiene 1(3), pp 151-158. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/