Mistletoe alert: Minty fresh breath is just an illusion

Dec 3, 2014 at 7:30 a.m. ET

Having minty fresh breath is a staple of romantic comedies, toothpaste commercials, date-night prep and, well, life, right? But according to experts this may be more marketing hype than good health.

Do you remember cinnamon toothpaste? Or orange burst? Or even chocolate? These were all flavors put out by popular brands in the past decade and yet when you think of toothpaste most of us automatically think of one flavor: mint. In fact, having minty smelling breath and teeth has become so ingrained in us that we associate mint with having good oral hygiene.

This would be a mistake, says Rachel Weingarten, a cosmetics historian, to Vox. Using mint in toothpaste, mouthwash, mints and other products is a fairly modern invention and it's almost solely a marketing one. While mint does give you a pleasant, tingling feeling it doesn't clean your teeth any better than, say, bacon toothpaste (which also weirdly exists).

"We love to believe in minty freshness, even though it doesn't really exist," Weingarten says. "If you're about to kiss someone, you want to feel like your breath is absolutely minty fresh. It's a wonderful illusion."

Unfortunately some "breath freshening" products like candy mints go beyond illusion and actually cause tooth decay and bad breath by feeding sugar to the bacteria in your mouth. (Looking at you, candy canes!) So instead of hurting your teeth with actual candy, now you can brush your teeth with candy (flavors). For example, Crest's newest flavor offerings are Mint Chocolate Trek, Vanilla Mint Spark and Lime Spearmint Zest.

But for good oral hygiene you need to go beyond tooth brushing, no matter how minty fresh your mouth already feels, say dentists. So to have a truly fresh, clean mouth when you're standing under the mistletoe, keep these five tips in mind.

1. Brush your tongue

Stinky bacteria live all over your tongue so if you're thinking of doing some French kissing later you'll definitely want to make sure it's ready for action.

2. Skip the flavored mouthwash and gargle with hydrogen peroxide

Instead of going for the liquid that smells the best, go for the one that cleans the best, says Mike McIlwain, D.M.D., a dentist at McIlwain Dentistry and an assistant clinical professor in Pediatric Dentistry at the University of Florida, to WebMD. "Gargle with peroxide for fresher breath. Treat it like your favorite mouthwash. Just swig, swish, and spit. The oxygen in the hydrogen peroxide kills mouth bacteria that cause bad breath," he explains.

3. Stay hydrated

Dehydration is a common, if lesser known, cause of rank mouth odors. When you don't drink enough water, your spit dries up and can't wash away the bacteria, allowing it to build up in your mouth.

4. Treat infections

That cold going around right now can morph into a sinus infection, another common cause of bad breath. Post-nasal drip, when the snot runs down the back of your throat, can make you smell as sick as you feel.

5. Eat more yogurt

You already knew that yogurt can help with vaginal yeast infections and weight maintenance, but the good bacteria in yogurt also helps balance out the bacteria in your mouth, leading to fresher breath and whiter teeth.

More on oral hygiene

DIY teeth whitener using strawberries
10 Reasons kissing is great for your health
The unhelpful things many women do before dental visits