Even if you steer clear of the garlic bread and booze, bad breath can sneak up on you. And anyone who’s ever been caught before a big meeting or a date without an emergency mint or trusty stick of gum (the horror!) knows it can be a big issue. To neutralize these smelly situations, you have to know what causes them. Most of the time, we can blame bacteria—the kind that naturally occurs in our mouths—says , associate professor of dental medicine and director of orthodontics at Columbia University.
Brushing your teeth regularly is the best defense, but Wadhwa says many people forget to brush two major bacteria breeding grounds: their gums and tongue. If you’re practicing good dental hygiene and still experiencing rank breath, you may be dealing with a bigger issue like post-nasal drip or a sinus infection, says , a dentist based in Connecticut. But before you call your own dentist in a panic, Sobieraj advises using a tongue scraper to be sure you’re getting at the source of the stinky stuff.
Of course, sometimes despite our regular brushing regimen, we still get caught with funky breath. Here’s what you should reach for to stifle the stank.
When you’re really in a pinch, grab a glass of water. The bacteria in our mouths naturally releases a foul gas as it goes about its job of keeping our bodies healthy and balanced. “The saliva in your mouth actually prevents the release of gas,” Wadhwa says. “So anytime you have a dry mouth, more of the gas is released.” Stay hydrated to keep your salivary glands happy.
2. Carrots or Celery
Next time you’re stuck at cocktail party sans breath fresheners, reach for the crudités. Watery veggies, like carrots and celery, can act like a toothbrush substitute by clearing your mouth of food debris before they start to create a stench. Their real power, though, is in in the stimulation of saliva production. “A lot of things we think cure bad breath are really just increasing your saliva, which helps,” Wadhwa says.
In addition to helping with the dry mouth issue, tea has some other breath-boosting properties. Scientists have found that polyphenols—chemical compounds found in black and green tea—can prevent the growth of the bacteria that causes bad breath. Lodhia P, Yaegaki K, Khakbaznejad A. Journal of nutritional science and vitaminology, 2008, Nov.;54(1):0301-4800. Bring on tea time!
Before you head into your next meeting, grab an apple from the office break room. Apples contain oxidized polyphenols, which help to neutralize the odor produced by bacteria in your mouth. Munch R, Barringer SA. Journal of food science, 2014, Mar.;79(4):1750-3841. Bonus: Biting into the firm texture of the apple helps to scrub bacteria off of your teeth too.
But only if it’s black. Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that regular coffee can in its tracks. Coffee leaves most people a little dehydrated, so make sure to steer clear of milk or creamer, which can be pungent in a dry mouth.
How many times have you ordered a dish that’s loaded with garlic, only to realize you’ve run out of gum? Talk about a mood killer. If you’re in a pinch, chew on the parsley that’s garnishing your meal. A recent study found certain enzymes in parsley helped to neutralize garlic breath. Munch R, Barringer SA. Journal of food science, 2014, Mar.;79(4):1750-3841.