How it works: Bad breath can occur when the bacteria on your tongue break down the proteins in mucus and food—especially sugar and dairy products—which can cause the bacteria to release sulfur compounds. Result: stinky breath. However, bacteria’s sworn enemy is oxygen, which is found in your own saliva. And drinking water (go with straight water over sugary flavored versions) makes you produce more saliva, which in turn neutralizes bad breath, says Harold Katz, a dentist in Los Angeles and the founder of TheraBreath.com.
Good to know: Some medications, including anti-depressants, blood-pressure drugs, and antihistamines, can cause a dry mouth. If you take them, you may want to increase your water intake beyond the widely recommended eight glasses a day.
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How they work: Fibrous vegetables, such as celery and cucumbers, boost your mouth’s saliva production, which washes away odor-causing bacteria. In fact, holding a slice of cucumber between your tongue and the roof of your mouth for about 90 seconds helps limit odor. Crunchy vegetables help remove plaque on teeth and gums, which bacteria can feed on, says Gregg Lituchy, a cosmetic dentist in New York City.
Good to know: Parsley has the same odor-neutralizing effect as vegetables. So the next time you’re out to dinner, chew on your garnish (discreetly!).
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How it works: A 2007 study at the University of British Columbia found that the polyphenols in green tea temporarily decrease sulfur compounds in the mouth. Just be sure to drink it straight—adding sugar or milk will increase the bacteria you’re trying to reduce. Studies also show that green tea may help prevent gum disease, too.
Good to know: Mint tea has powerful anti-odor benefits as well and has been shown to be especially good at neutralizing garlic oils, notes Lituchy.
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How it works: This plant-derived oil has antibacterial properties, says Margo Marrone, a pharmacist and a homeopath based in London. Put a few drops directly on your toothbrush and brush the back of your tongue and along your gumline, then spit out any excess. The oil will kill some of the odor-generating bacteria that can lurk in those parts.
Good to know: Because experts aren’t sure what effects essential oils may have on women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, they recommend that women avoid tea-tree oil during these times.
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How it works: Again, it’s all about saliva: Chewing gum increases its production and chewing just one piece makes your mouth create up to 10 times more saliva than usual. But not just any pack will do. “Gum that contains sugar actually feeds the bacteria that generate sulfur compounds,” says Robin Lucas, a dentist in Hoboken, New Jersey. Instead, look for gums that contain natural sweeteners called sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and sorbitol. Try Trident Vitality ($1.30 at drugstores). Sugar-free mints also stimulate saliva production and temporarily mask odor.
Good to know: If you are not accustomed to sugar-free gum, go easy at first. For some people, sugar alcohols can cause stomach discomfort, bloating, and gas.
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How it works: According to the American Dental Association, some mouthwashes do more than leave breath smelling minty; they contain antiseptic agents, such as cetylpyridinium chloride, to reduce plaque and prevent gingivitis, which can also cause bad breath. Try Crest Pro-Health Invigorating Clean Multi-Protection Rinse ($6 at drugstores). If mouthwash makes your tongue and cheeks burn, switch to an alcohol-free version or dilute it with a little water. “It might be less effective than full strength, but you’ll still get benefits,” says Lituchy.
Good to know: At bedtime, using mouthwash after brushing your teeth and tongue and flossing can help prevent morning breath. Be sure to gargle for at least 30 seconds to wipe out bacteria lurking in your throat and on the back of your tongue, says Katz.