Ever seen your tongue under a microscope? If not, take a long, hard look—if you dare! It’s weird, it’s creepy and, according to dentist Michelle Ashcraft, it’s the “perfect environment for odor-spreading bacteria,” and absolutely needs a regular scrubbing. To explain why, she took us on a tour of the tongue’s anatomy.
What exactly makes the tongue a prime location for a bacteria block party? “The tongue is covered in various sizes of papillae [tiny, nipple-like structures that help the tongue manipulate food],” Ashcraft explains. “These not only trap bacteria, but also retain dead cells that rot and cause halitosis, a.k.a. bad breath.” Or, in less scientific terms, your tongue is a lot like a sponge—it’s covered in cracks and crevices that are home to nasty stuff that causes stank-mouth.
But don’t go reaching for the tongue scraper just yet. Ashcraft says the only reasons you should need a tongue cleaning tool aside from the bristles on your toothbrush is (1) if you’re still experiencing death breath despite regularly brushing your tongue and flossing, (2) if you have discoloration as a result of drinking coffee or wine, or are using tobacco products, or (3) if you’re one of the 13 percent of people who have a bizarre condition called hairy tongue. What is hairy tongue? You had to ask…
Essentially, it’s an overgrowth of bacteria-trapping papillae (click at your own risk) that look like hairs—hence the name. If you do, in fact, have hairy tongue, it’s important that you steer clear of coffee and tobacco and use a tongue scraper, lest you enjoy feeling like you have a mouse in your mouth.
For everyone else, just make sure to brush your tongue every time you brush your teeth—if nothing else, it’ll save you a few cents in gum each month.