How to Smell Your Own Breath to See If You Have Bad Breath
Modern living is tough sometimes. The burden of knowledge is everywhere. A hundred years ago, toothpaste and air conditioning hadn’t been invented. Everyone was gross, so nobody had to worry about it. Now, we know every potential offense our bodies can cause, and the most unforgivable of all is bad breath. It’s social suicide to try and do a little face-to-face networking after you just enjoyed some spicy hors d’oeuvres. No, we have to have pleasant breath at all times, and the only way we can hope to achieve that is to know when our breath gets bad. Never fear. We’re going to cover it all today, and you’re about to become an expert in identifying and treating your own bad breath.
Why It’s Hard to Smell Your Own Breath
You can smell your own farts, so why is it tough to smell the stink in your mouth? There’s not a definitive answer, but there are some compelling clues. The first clue is that your mouth is connected to your nose through an opening. If you’ve ever snorted something and then tasted it, you experienced this connection. Since this pathway is always open, you’re actually smelling your own breath all the time. Most experts are convinced that your brain filters out the smell of your own breath (good or bad) like white noise.
In fact, white noise is the other clue. We know that our brains are capable of ignoring persistent things. For whatever reason, we respond more to changes than to static situations. It’s why you ignore the sound of your refrigerator, why you can get highway hypnosis on a long, straight road and why you don’t feel your underwear right now. Well, now that you’re thinking about it you might, but you weren’t before we said anything.
Here’s a check to see if the concept of white noise can explain why you don’t smell your own breath. When you brush your teeth or take a breath mint, do you smell your breath afterwards? You definitely taste the minty freshness, but do you smell it?
Why Can We Smell Others’ Breath?
If our brains are so good at ignoring breath, why do we smell it off of other people? The answer to that is pretty simple. Everyone has a unique brand. Even after using the same mouthwash, two people will have distinguishable scents. This is because everyone’s biology is unique. You have a specific microbiota in your mouth (even after disinfectant mouthwash), and it produces a chemical concoction that produces your own identifiable breath. After washing your mouth, those unique markers are still there — they just combine with whatever good smell you added to the mixture.
If you’re bored, you can test this idea. Get two friends to use the same mouthwash and then breathe on you. Can you smell a difference? It’ll be partially drowned by the strong scents they added, but if you pay attention, you can probably tell the two apart.
Debunking Sniff Tests
So, you can’t just sniff your own breath to tell if it’s bad. Still, we need to know when we’re in danger of clearing a room. There are a lot of tests out there that are supposed to help you spot your own halitosis. A lot of them don’t really work, so we’re going to spend a few minutes debunking them together. If you’ve been paying attention, you should be able to spot some problems right away. Maybe we should have a test at the end.
Breathe in Your Hand
This is the classic. You cup your hand, breathe into it, and take a big whiff. That’ll give you a chance to smell your own breath and make a determination. This isn’t completely unreasonable. You really can trap enough of your breath in your hand (for a moment at least) that this would work. The problem is that your breath smells the same going up your nostrils as it does going up the back door.
This means that your brain is going to ignore your breath in your hand the same way it ignores the breath in your mouth. Some people will swear that they smell something this test, and they aren’t exactly wrong. You very well might smell something. The problem is that you won’t be smelling your breath. You’ll smell your hand. You might even smell a mixture of things from your mouth and your hand. Regardless, that odor is unquestionably different from what other people will smell if you get up close and personal.
The Lick Test
If you want to take things up a notch, you can lick yourself. Different people will recommend different spots (like the wrist). The trick here is to take a good lick and then let it dry for 10 seconds or so. After that, you should be able to smell your breath on your wrist. This method should work better than breathing in your hand, but it still has fundamental problems.
The reason people get tricked into believing this trick is because of food residue. Say you eat a peanut butter and chocolate candy (we’re avoiding copyright issues). That candy will alter your breath, and if you do the lick test, you’ll smell the candy on your wrist. That’s because some of that candy is still stuck to your tongue (hence the delicious after taste), and it will pass to your wrist. The issue is that a lot of elements of your breath (especially when it’s bad) won’t stick to your wrist with this test. It can identify extremely strong breath, but it misses all of the subtlety. If you have mild breath issues, you won’t know with this test.
The Mouth Swab
Some others will recommend gently scraping your tongue or cheek with a q-tip or toothpick. You should get as far back in your mouth as you can. After swabbing, let it dry for a few seconds and then take a deep sniff.
You’re smart enough to see the problem. This is just the lick test done a little more thoroughly. So, it’s a little more reliable than the lick test, but it’s ultimately the same thing. The sources or odor that easily vaporize won’t stick to your swab, and you’ll be clueless to their smell when you run the test.
Also, the brain filter remains an issue with all of these tests. Mostly, you’ll only be able to smell elements of your breath that change when you perform these tests. The bulk of the smell will remain the same, and you will continue to treat it as white noise.
Methods That Actually Work
Now we know that we can’t trust our own nose in this endeavor. It’s ok. It’s still important to know when you’re breathing dragon’s fire, and there are reliable ways to get accurate intel. The trick is to leave your nose out of the equation. That sounds harder than it really is. There are plenty of easy identifiers that don’t involve your nose at all.
You’ve tasted your own bad breath. You know how this works, but let’s paint a little word picture to help you. Think back to the last time you had a head cold. You woke up feeling achy and miserable. There was an unpleasant film all over your mouth (it was dried mucus), and your mouth did not taste right. You’re probably frowning a little just remembering.
Here’s the good news (or maybe it’s bad news). Your breath was exactly as terrible as you might think. This is the extreme version of halitosis, and it usually comes from a combination of mucus residue and dry mouth. You get plenty of both with a head cold.
Now, let’s try to imagine a less-extreme version of that. You can tell when your mouth isn’t at its best. Maybe it’s a little dry. Maybe the internal flavor is a little off (odd that you can taste your mouth more reliably than you can smell it, but that’s how it is). Perhaps you had too many cheesy chips at lunch (dodging those copyrights again) and you can feel it. With any experience at all, you should be able to taste your worst breath. Deal with it accordingly.
Do the Math
Don’t worry; there isn’t going to be an actual math test here. It’s pretty basic stuff. You know things that cause bad breath. You know when you drink, smoke or eat roasted garlic cloves that you’re creating oral factory torture for anyone who gets within a few feet of you. When you engage in these practices, counter them.
Here’s the trick. The common method to battling bad breath is a mint or a stick of gum. That’s not quite the right way to do things. You actually want to rinse your mouth first. Just a few rounds of rinse/swish/spit in a sink will remove a lot of the odor-causing chemicals that are in your mouth. That alone isn’t enough, but it dramatically reduces the source of the issue. If you rinse first, your minty treatments will be more successful. Your breath will smell fresh, rather than a combination of powerful herbs and terrible halitosis.
Ask a Friend
Our final means of identifying rotten breath is by far the most reliable. Ask someone else. We already established that other people can smell your breath better than you can. Make use of the obvious. Of course, it’s a real testament of love for someone to willingly expose themselves to the rancid smells that come from your food hole. The true gentleman would consider returning the favor.
When you have a reliable breath check buddy, you can conquer rank breath together. You’ll be able to spot even mild odor problems, and with your teamwork, you’ll find that both of your social lives improve dramatically. Dating will go better. You’ll get promotions at work. The Nigerian prince emailing you will actually give you huge sums of money. It’s pretty amazing.
Dealing With Bad Breath
After all of this talk about identifying bad breath, it would be downright criminal to refrain from giving you advice on defeating your breath. Yes, you already know how to pop a breath mint, and you just learned about rinsing your mouth, but we can add some useful knowledge to this pool. And, don’t worry. We have more for you than just telling you to brush your teeth.
Brush Your Teeth
Did you just roll your eyes? You think you already know all about brushing your teeth, huh? Let’s see. If you plan to brush your teeth after every meal, you’re actually wrong. Dentists will tell you that brushing after eating is a good way to fight disease, but that short answer skips something important. You should wait a while between eating and brushing. Otherwise, you can actually worsen tooth problems related to eating sugars and/or acids. Boom. We promised more than just telling you to brush.
Aside from that, there are a few more brushing tips that will help a little extra with battling bad breath:
- Time your sessions. Electric brushes do this for you, and it makes a big difference. If you’re still manual, just use a timer. You’ll understand after the first time. Remember, you want to scrub for two minutes.
- Get deep. Bad breath holes up in the back of your mouth. You have to get deep on the tongue, cheeks and gums to really kill it. You might have to battle your gag reflex to make this happen.
- Brush after exercise. You may not want to brush right after eating, but brushing after a workout is important. Vigorous exercise increases mucus production, and that contributes to bad breath.
Find the Root Cause
Sometimes, ad hoc mouth care isn’t enough. Persistent bad breath is a thing, and you can trust that there’s always a root cause. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a little bit of allergies. Other times, it can be an indicator of an oral infection. You can’t really hope to master your breath unless you know what’s driving the problem.
Here’s the point. You need to play Nancy Drew and get to the bottom of your bad breath. Some issues will be overwhelmingly obvious, but others can be tricky. If you can’t solve it alone, talk to your dentist. This is something they really do care about, since breath is a major clue for oral health. A simple chat could lead to common, friendly advice, but it also might help you catch something important. Never leave the medical team out when you don’t smell right. That’s advice to live by.
Drink a Glass of Water
The last tip is the easiest and friendliest. If rinsing your mouth can help with bad breath, so can drinking a little water. As we’ve already learned, dry mouth is a contributor to halitosis. The easiest way to combat dry mouth is to drink water. It’s not exactly rocket science.
The point of including this advice is to highlight a few things. You’re not always in a situation where detailed oral care is an option. Sometimes, breath mints and gum are out of the question. But, as a functioning adult, water should always be available. Drinking it down immediately hydrates your mouth, and it gives your body what you need to maintain that hydration.
If you’re in such a dire situation that you can’t even get water to deal with your breath, then you don’t need to be worried about a stinky mouth. You’re in survival mode. So, the simple lesson is this. Never overlook the power of a glass of water when your mouth is gross. At the very least, it’ll dilute the problem and make your other treatments more effective.
Congratulations. You’ve learned how to identify and treat bad breath. From this day forward, you have no excuse to ever punish someone for being downwind of your respiration. You know what is necessary to make sure you’re always ready for a little intimate closeness, and you can share this good advice with that friend who really needs it. Maybe we should discuss subtlety and tact in a later blog. You’ll probably need help learning how to breach this topic without being too blunt. Until then, an honest friend is a good friend. Just send them the link and hope that they'll pay attention.