Clean Your Mouth: Bad Breath And How to Treat It

Did your mother ever tell you to wash out your mouth with soap? It’s an American thing, but for generations American mothers instructed their children—without actually meaning it—when they said naughty word or made unacceptable comments to wash out their mouths with soap. (It’s considered a form of child abuse, that can get parents put in jail, actually to do such a thing. But it’s an acceptable turn of phrase.)

If your mother ever told you that washing out your mouth with soap would cure bad breath, with all respect, she would be wrong. Nonetheless many of us try to do that every single day.

SLS and Bad Breath

No mentally competent person actually take care of oral hygiene with a bar of soap. Millions of us, however, use products that contain a sudsing agent known as sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS. If you live in the UK, you may see this chemical labeled as sodium dodecyl sulphate.

SLS is a surfactant. The best way to describe what it does is that it makes debris simply float away. The SLS in your toothpaste or mouthwash helps take tiny particles off your teeth and tongue, and leaves your mouth feeling fresher. The problem is that cleaning is not all SLS can do.

In the medical lab, SLS is used to break up tissues into individual cells. The concentration of SLS in most oral hygiene products is not so high that you will get bleeding ulcers inside your mouth (although SLS-sensitive people, usually women, actually experience this), but it is high enough that it can dry out the lining of your mouth. And that is what makes SLS a mouthwash marketer’s dream.

SLS dries out your mouth and tongue. It also loosens cells on the outermost lining of your mouth and tongue. The drying of membranes in your mouth creates tiny cracks and crevices in which bad breath bacteria can establish a home. The loosening of cells in your mouth cuts them off from oxygen and nutrition so that they quickly die. These dead cells become food for bad breath bacteria.

When your mouthwash contains SLS, the more mouthwash you use, the more mouthwash you need. That’s why you will never get your bad breath under control as long as you continue to use oral care products of any kind that contain this ingredient.

So, what should you use instead? Especially if you have chapped lips or you get acne on your chin, which are also side effects of SLS, try SLS-free products made by JASON’s Natural Cosmetics, Organix South, Theraveda, and Tom’s of Maine. But keeping your mouth irritation-free is only part of the battle.

Beyond Brushing

Brushing your teeth unquestionably helps keep your breath fresh. About 30% of all the bacteria in your mouth that can cause bad breath live on the surfaces of your teeth. Brushing removes them and sweetens your breath. Brushing your teeth, however, does not get rid of the 70% of bad breath bacteria that live on your gums and on your tongue.

The place bad breath bacteria accumulate on your gums is in the pocket at the base of each tooth known as the sulcus. Between 2 and 10 mm (1/10″ to 1/3″) deep, this gap between the teeth and gums can accumulate both bad breath bacteria and cellular debris from the gum itself. It can be crowded with plaque growing on the surface of the teeth if you don’t get regular dental care. And the bad breath bacteria that grow in each sulcus in your mouth release volatile sulfur compounds that don’t just smell bad, they also can break down proteins in the lining of your gums, killing gum tissue and making your breath smell even worse.

Some people try to clean their gums with methods that either don’t work or make the problem worse. Oral irrigation devices are great for removing plaque (although they won’t get all or even most of it) on the surfaces of the teeth your brush can’t reach. Removing plaque makes it easier for bad breath bacteria to flow out of the sulci (plural of sulcus, gaps) to places in your mouth where you can remove them. If you point the tip of your oral irrigation device at your teeth rather than placing at the base of your teeth, however, the offending bacteria will not be removed. And toothpicks actually compact the material that causes bad breath, as well as bruising your gums.

The best way to deal with the bad breath bacteria that live on your gums is to buy an oral irrigation device like the Hydrofloss or the Oxycare 3000. (The Oxycare 3000 is made by the Oxyfresh Company and is often mislabeled as the “Oxyfresh 3000.”) These machines help your gums and teeth stay healthier while getting rid of the bacteria and “gunk” that can cause bad breath.

Not everyone can afford oral irrigators, however, to get rid of the 30% of all bad breath bacteria that live under the gums. Fortunately, nearly anyone can afford a plastic tongue scraper that will get rid of the 40% of bad breath bacteria that live on the tongue.

Scraping Bad Breath Away

The next time you look in the mirror, stick out your tongue. Chances are that it is covered with a white or yellowish mossy film. That’s where bad breath bacteria live. If you scrape away the film, you scrape away the bacteria, and you control a major source of bad breath.

Do not use any sharp, metallic, glass, or porcelain scrapers on your tongue. The idea is to scrape away bacteria, not to scrape away tongue tissue. Use either a plastic tongue scraper that you can buy at almost any drugstore, or scrape your tongue with your toothbrush, several times a week.

Don’t forget to clean your brush or toothbrush after you scrape your tongue. You don’t want to replace the bacteria you removed the next time you do the procedure. But even if you cannot afford Hydrofloss or Oxycare oral irrigation machines, brushing and scraping will remove 70% of the bacteria that cause bad breath.

What about other methods of controlling bad breath? Mints and mouthwashes usually just mask bad breath odors. They don’t get rid of the cause of bad breath (or they make the problem worse). Flossing is helpful if you do it the right way, around each tooth, not digging into your gums between each tooth. And bad breath caused by chronic health conditions is best treated by treating the chronic health condition.

Brushing, scraping, and oral irrigation are by far the best ways of getting rid of most cases of bad breath for good. You may have a significant up-front cost to get the right equipment, but after the initial expense it’s possible you won’t need other products to keep your breath clean.


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