How Can I Tell if I Have Bad Breath?

In this edition of It’s Not a Stupid Question, a dentist explains why you can’t smell your own breath (and how to keep it smelling fresh).

How Can I Tell if I Have Bad Breath?

Bad breath is the worst: It ends dates, ruins job interviews and makes it virtually impossible for anyone to focus on the actual words coming out of your mouth. What’s extra annoying is that it’s really tough to tell whether or not you have it—if you don’t know how to do it properly, that is. With these tips from Dr. Corbin Brady, dentist at Brady Dental Care, you’ll not only be able to gauge exactly how your breath smells at all times, you’ll also be able to eliminate the odor altogether.

First, the absolute best way to tell if you have bad breath: “My wife is really good about telling me,” Brady jokes. While having someone else tell you probably wasn’t the answer you were looking for (don’t worry, there are other suggestions below), there’s science behind why it’s the right answer: Our brains acclimate themselves to scents we smell frequently—in this case, our breath—so we can experience new smells more easily without having to navigate past all the scents that follow us around. If we never became acclimated to smells, it would be near impossible to smell things like food and flowers without being overwhelmed by the smell of our own breath or our surroundings. The upshot being, of course, that it’s hard to tell what your own breath really smells like.

If you don’t feel comfortable breathing in someone’s face to find out whether or not your breath stinks, there is one other thing you can do: Lick your wrist, then wait 10 seconds. If the area you licked smells bad, chances are, so does your breath. This works because you’re depositing all that gross-smelling gunk on your tongue (a large contributor to bad breath), directly onto the skin, where it gives you an uninhibited whiff of your breath.

As far as what you can do to quell your bad breath (especially if you experience it more often than not), the answer mostly lies in routine oral hygiene. “The bacteria within your mouth produces smelly by-products, so controlling that bacteria is the best path to avoiding bad breath,” Brady explains. “That means brushing, flossing and using mouth rinses—we also encourage our patients to not only brush their tongue with a toothbrush, but also to use a tongue scraper to remove any extra gunk.”

If you’re experiencing what’s called chronic halitosis (aka, bad breath that seems to just never go away), Brady says that might be a result of dry mouth. That’s because saliva washes away dead cells that accumulate on the tongue, gums and cheeks. But if your mouth is constantly dry, those dead cells will decompose and cause a real stink. If that’s the case, Brady recommends asking your dentist about a rinse that will keep your mouth hydrated.

Most importantly, though, fighting bad breath is as simple as routinely brushing and flossing. Well, at least tell your dentist you floss—we promise we won’t rat you out.