the mysterious science of bad breath man repeller
Kim Kardashian and the Mysterious Science of Bad Breath
05.30.19

Supposedly Kim Kardashian can smell cavities. I learned this in her 73 Questions interview on Vogue.com. When she said it (“I have a hidden talent where I can smell when someone has a cavity,”) I thought, What an absurd claim. Later I learned she’s been saying it for years:

I felt content to chalk it up to psuedo-science until, two days later, my boyfriend apologized that he might have bad breath “because he was hungry,” and I promptly lost my hubris.

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“That’s a thing!” he said.

“No, it’s not!” I said, out of disbelief more than confidence.

I have a tense relationship with bad breath. For reasons beyond my language, I find it to be one of the most embarrassing bodily functions. I’d rather have kale in every individual tooth than douse someone in smelly air from the inside of my body. This obsession has manifested in several ways: chronic gum-chewing (which I’ve had to quit due to migraines); drinking copious amounts of water so as to become, effectively, a human faucet; and most importantly, speaking in such a way that air barely escapes my mouth if I suspect I’m less than fresh, which must be some kind of transcendental achievement.

What if everything I know about breath is wrong? I wondered post-hungry-breath debate. The thought summoned a memory from five years ago, when a new dentist had asked me, during intake, if I ever got bad breath. I stared at him. “Uh, doesn’t everybody?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “it’s a result of poor hygiene.” Horrified, I left his office an hour later and never returned.

All respect due, I wanted him and Avi and Kim to be wrong. I wanted to live in a world where breath was a little stale in the morning and then we brushed, avoided garlic, and then brushed and flossed again. But I’ve learned the best way to alleviate a fear is to open your ears, not plug them, so I decided to finally look into the mysterious science of bad breath.

I started with Google. “Persistent bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth may be a warning sign of gum disease,” WebMD aggressively proclaimed straight out of the gate. The site referred to bad breath as “halitosis,” which I learned was nothing more than the medical term for bad breath, not a disease. “Bad breath affects an estimated 25 percent of people,” read Medical News Today. “There are a number of possible causes of halitosis, but the vast majority come down to oral hygiene.” To my dismay, neither outlet cited “being human” as a cause.

It’s not that I can smell my own, nor am told I have it, bad breath is simply a fear. And if my mouth doesn’t taste minty or hydrated, an assumption. It’s always been my understanding that everyone’s breath smells from time to time (namely, early morning, midday, end of evening, so always-ish?). It’s like body odor; it’s not safe to sniff yourself — you must deduce and preempt with utmost self-consciousness. But if bad breath is evidence of something more nefarious than being alive, as my Googling has led me to believe, I’m concerned for all of our health (and also Kim Kardashian’s nose).

So perhaps Kim does have a gift, albeit the worst gift of all time.

You know who could clarify? I thought: Listerine—the breath-saver of the people. I reached out and was connected with Tara Fourre, their microbiology research manager. What actually causes bad breath, scientifically speaking? “Breath odor is caused by the foods you eat, your health status, and by the bacteria that live in your mouth,” Fourre wrote me, adding the nightmarish detail that “there are millions of bacteria, and hundreds of different species, living and growing in your mouth at any given time,” some of which produce chemicals called “Volatile Sulfur Compounds,” which smell as good as they sound.

She told me our breath is worse in the morning because, hold on to your colon, the bacteria has been growing all night long, breaking down leftover debris in our mouths, free to party without the buzzkill that is our saliva — “especially in the back of the tongue where the majority of these bacteria grow.” But before you proclaim yourself a nihilist, she says that “some level of bad breath can develop in the normal healthy mouth, especially if the malodor is coming from foods you have eaten.”

Then I will just stop eating, you’re thinking, to which I would say: Please don’t, because I’d like you alive, but also because that might make your breath worse. (There’s very little winning in the breath business.) Contrary to popular belief, and in line with the alchemy that is “hungry breath,” Fourre says eating actually reduces bad breath: “Bad breath can be caused by fasting or skipping meals because the physical removal of oral debris through the act of eating alone may offer some degree of bad breath control.” (Sorry, Avi, you were right.)

Most importantly, I asked: If I ever meet Kim Kardashian, will she be able to smell my cavities? According to Fourre, maybe, because different types of bacteria have distinct odors and those associated with cavities do have an odor in the lab (!). “However, those that cause bad breath are much more recognizable.” So perhaps Kim does have a gift, albeit the worst gift of all time.

So in the end, our mouths are crawling with bacteria, some of which Kim Kardashian can smell, and they really get debaucherous when we’re sleeping or not eating, and there is nothing we can do to stop them from creating odors akin to sulfur unless we remove every last food particle in our mouths, which is virtually impossible.

In other words, it’s really best not to think about it at all. Sleep tight!

Feature collage by Emily Zirimis.

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