There’s morning breath and then there’s a noxious, skunky smell that even mouthwash can’t kill—most of us don’t want either. “Socially and in the workplace, bad breath is a really bad thing, like body odor,” says halitosis expert Steven Fox, D.D.S., of Fox Fresh Breath Dental. And while eating garlic or anchovies would be an obvious culprit, “80 percent of bad breath usually comes from the dental environment (like gingivitis or bad dental hygiene), and 20 percent from things like indigestion, tonsils, or sinuses,” says Scott Froum, a periodontist who often treats cases of bad breath.
Your more extreme cases of halitosis, the medical term for chronic bad breath, affect about a quarter of the population. If you’re self-aware, you’ve tried everything on the shelf to mask it (and run through a lot of breath mints in the process), but in those particular cases, no over-the-counter solution will help—instead, a screening with a specialist can test your anaerobic bacteria and equip you with the right meds to treat it.
For run-of-the-mill bad breath that plagues most people, though, periodontist Mike Breault says that good oral hygiene—brushing and flossing, plus regular cleanings with your dentist—is most important. To find more immediate, specific treatments, we asked the experts for their best over-the-counter recommendations.
Foul breath often goes hand in hand with a dry mouth, since saliva does the work of washing away dead cells and bacteria in your mouth. And whether your dry mouth means you’re a coffee fiend or have something chronic like an autoimmune disease, the first thing that Breault and Froum suggest as a solution is nonalcoholic mouthwash that kills bacteria without drying out your mouth. “In terms of mouth rinses, anything nonalcoholic is good because the alcohol will dry up oral mucosa (or, the mucous membrane lining the inside of the mouth) and actually contribute to bad breath,” says Froum.
Moistening your mouth throughout the day can also keep bacteria and odors at bay. Drinking more water is a given, but there are supplements that can help, too. “If it gets to the point where your mouth is dry for various reasons, you can buy over-the-counter solutions like Biotène. It’s a rinse that coats your mouth and creates a moist environment,” Breault says.
And should you prefer a lozenge that you can discreetly work on at your disposal, Breault also suggests Xylimelts, which are “little discs, kind of like cough drops, that melt in your mouth to moisturize and lubricate things.”
If sinus problems are causing your dry mouth, there’s also a Xylitol spray for that. Froum suggests using one to moisturize your nasal passage, while clearing away postnasal drip that may be increasing the amount of bacteria in your mouth.
Considering that your tongue is a breeding ground for bacteria, it’s an easy place to nip bad breath in the bud. “Usually the bacteria lie in between the teeth, and cleaning that is accomplished by flossing,” says Froum. “But the tongue is also full of bacteria in the area at the back of the tongue. So you need to get a tongue scraper to remove some of the bacteria that’s embedded there.” This medical-grade tongue scraper comes highly recommended by writer Or Gotham as a solution for morning breath.
For specific types of floss, Froum says he usually gravitates toward water picks for patients that want to streamline their dental routine. “That usually helps because they find it easier to do interproximal dental care with a water pick versus floss,” he says. Incidentally, we also covered water flossers recently, and this Waterpik Aquarius (which looks very sleek in all-black) was recommended by dentist Siama Muhammad as a powerful tool for negligent flossers.
Your bad breath might also be telling you to step up your dental-hygiene habits. Reexamining the basics, in this case, could be a next step. “Usually, I recommend an electric toothbrush like a Sonicare or an Oral-B if someone has bad dental hygiene because they often find that easier to use than a manual toothbrush,” says Froum.
That being said, pay attention to which types of heads you choose for your toothbrush.
“We tend to recommend softer-bristle brushes because you’re not beating up on your gums. If you get heavy-handed with stiff bristle brushes, you can cause gum recession, and that can contribute to other problems,” says Breault. This Sonicare head for sensitive gums has a similar shape to a manual toothbrush, and softer bristles, but can be fitted to your standard Sonicare electric toothbrush.
This one’s extra, but since writer Chris Black recommended these for bad breath, we thought we’d pass them along. They’re minty tea-tree toothpicks that he claims are far superior to gum. “There is no sugar or unpronounceable chemicals added, they don’t produce that obnoxious chewing sound, and the tea-tree oil’s natural antiseptic qualities provide fresh breath while killing bacteria.”