Why You Have Bad Breath—and How to Get Rid of It

Bad breath stinks, but what can you actually do about it? Chew some gum? Suck on a mint? These strategies offer some benefit, but they’re short lasting.

You need a complete strategy.

So let’s start with the root cause of bad breath: volatile sulfur compounds (VSC). While they sound more like fumes you’d emit from your butt than your mouth, scientists say these substrates are what typically lead to halitosis.

Volatile sulfur compounds are thought to arise from the interaction of oral bacteria that occurs in conditions like gum disease and infections, and within pockets and crevices of your teeth.

But your tongue is the real problem, according to a report in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology. Turns out, its large surface area—with all the tiny cracks and grooves—allow it to harbor lots of the microorganisms that lead to volatile sulfur compounds.

In fact, in separate studies, scientists in Japan found that “tongue coating” had the greatest impact on producing volatile sulfur compounds in people’s mouths. This would also help explain why your breath is most likely to stink in the morning, since the compounds build up over night.

Which brings us to that complete strategy.

1. Clean your tongue. This helps disturb and remove the bacteria that create volatile sulfur compounds, and leads to a reduction in their odor. You can do this by literally brushing your tongue, but an even better approach is to scrape your tongue from back to front with a plastic tongue scraper.

When you brush your tongue with a little toothbrush, you might just be moving smelly bacteria around to different places on your tongue. But the larger surface area and flat design of a tongue scraper allow it to carry more bacteria out of your mouth when you scrape it forward, says Denis Kinane, B.D.S., Ph.D., the dean of University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

According to a Cochrane review of scientific literature, people who use a tongue scraper reduce volatile sulfur compounds by 42 percent, compared to 33 percent in those who brush their tongue. Plus, the effects of the tongue scraping last longer.

2. Brush and floss twice a day. This isn’t a surprise, of course. You’ll remove tiny food particles and microorganisms that can lead to those volatile sulfur compounds. If you don’t floss, try it and then give the floss a sniff. Smell nasty? You’ve probably uncovered a breeding ground for unhealthy bacteria—and hopefully gained motivation to start flossing regularly. Keep in mind that gingivitis and periodontitis can lead to volatile sulfur compounds and bad breath, so regular dental checkups are a must.

3. Keep your mouth well-hydrated. When you experience “dry mouth,” dead cells on your tongue, gums, and cheeks might build up. Without enough saliva to wash them away, bacteria will begin to feed off the dead cells and multiply. This produces a bunch of sulfur-related molecules that trigger bad breath, Dr. Kinane says.

If you frequently feel like your mouth is dry, try an over-the-counter rinse like Biotene, which has been shown to help with dry mouth. If your breath really reeks and you don’t have a rinse around, simply swish your mouth out with plain water. The rinsing action will physically remove some of the stinky bacteria, says Dr. Kinane.

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