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Put Down The Mouthwash: Here's What An MD Recommends For Bad Breath

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Image by GUILLE FAINGOLD / Stocksy
October 24, 2020

It's a Saturday evening. You just finished dinner, and you're getting cozy on the couch. Or maybe you're getting all primed and proper for a socially distant get-together with a friend. You release a few deep breaths, take a whiff, and, whoa, your exhales smell less than fresh. Perhaps you reach for a mouthwash for a minty-fresh feeling, or snag some toothpaste for a quick brush. 

Not so fast: According to functional medicine physician Frank Lipman, M.D., those quick fixes might not approach the actual issue at hand. Specifically, "Mouthwash is not something I would recommend," he says on the mindbodygreen podcast. (Spoiler: It has everything to do with your gut health.) 

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Put down the oral rinse, because here's what Lipman recommends for feeling clean. 

Put down the mouthwash.

Sure, the gut microbiome has quickly made its way into everyday vernacular (at least in the health and well-being space), but did you know your mouth has a microbiome1 as well? Just as how there are trillions of microorganisms residing in your gut (and nose!), you have a similar system between your lips. In fact, the two are intimately connected: "The mouth is the entranceway into your whole digestive system," Lipman says. "The oral microbiome is really important." Studies have even shown that oral bacteria can actually travel toward the gut and change its microbiota2. It's the literal portal to your gut health, if you will. 

And just like in your gut, you want a healthy balance of good bacteria. Think about it: When you abolish all the bacteria (like, say, through rounds upon rounds of antibiotics), gut issues typically ensue. Same goes for the mouth, as traditional mouthwashes sweep away all the bacteria—good and bad—to give you that wintergreen feeling, which helps in the short-term, sure, but your oral microbiome might suffer down the line—for instance, you could face some chronically stinky breath. 

Of course, we need way more research on the oral microbiome front before we can make any clear assumptions. We're just starting to scratch the surface in terms of the science, but Lipman's verdict is clear: "Traditional mouthwashes and toothpastes are not the best thing for your microbiome." 

So, what to do if you have bad breath...

OK, all this information definitely piques the curiosity, but what if you're dealing with bad breath, like, right now? We should note that mouthwashes aren't all bad: There are a number of iterations with gentler ingredients that still offer a fresh feeling without completely blasting away good bacteria (like this alkalizing option or this alcohol-free select).

Although, Lipman regards mouthwash as a quick fix, a Band-Aid over a larger issue. In true functional medicine fashion, he suggests getting to the root of the problem to address the symptoms. Of course, if you just inhaled an onion-garlic sandwich, you'll likely know the culprit for your funky breath—grab a gentler mouthwash and gargle away the pungent taste. But if you have chronic foul breath, the answer isn't so cut and dried: "If someone has bad breath, it's not from the mouth—it's usually a gut problem," Lipman says. Repeat after us: The gut and oral microbiomes are intimately connected. 

That being said, taking the time to focus on gut health—fiber-rich foods, probiotics, and such—might just help your bad breath in the long run. 

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The takeaway. 

We're just beginning to understand the oral microbiome, but doctors like Lipman do recognize a link between gut and oral health. Just like the gut microbiome, your mouth has trillions of organisms that require a little TLC. The bottom line? You want to foster the good bacteria in your oral microbiome—not blast it with cool, minty astringents—so keep that in mind the next time your breath is smelling a bit rank. 

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