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Mask Mouth: Causes & Prevention

Notice something a little funky lurking in your facemask? “Mask breath,” one of the more recent unpleasantries COVID-19 has bestowed upon the world, may not be life or death, but it can be quite unsettling for those who experience it and, sometimes, for those around them when the mask comes off too.

What’s behind this phenomenon? Below, we’ll dig into some of the causes of mask breath and go over how to prevent it, so you and those around you can breathe a little easier.

It’s Possible You’ve Always Had Bad Breath

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s entirely possible you had bad breath before you started donning a mask. Otherwise known as halitosis, bad breath impacts about 50% of the population. Most of us are blissfully unaware of how we smell in general. However, masks do keep the aroma of our exhales around long enough for us to get a better whiff than usual, which means you might only now be catching a scent that you’ve been carrying around for quite some time.

Halitosis has Many Possible Causes

Suffice it to say, your mouth is its own ecosystem that needs to be balanced to function properly and smell “normal.” When any one of the components is out of balance, it can throw everything else out of balance and create trouble ranging from cavities through gum disease and bad breath.

You might not be removing plaque well enough. Plaque, or the biofilm on your teeth, is made up of bacteria. When it’s left unattended, it irritates your gums and creates an acidic environment that hastens tooth demineralization and cavities. Naturally, leaving it intact doesn’t smell good, but the problem is easily corrected in its early stages through brushing (your teeth, gums, and tongue) and flossing. If you’re seeing blood when you brush or floss, failure to adequately remove plaque may be your problem.

You might be using an alcohol-based product. Many people turn to mouthwashes with alcohol to cope with bad breath, but this only makes the problem worse by killing the “good bacteria” and drying out tissues. It’s advantageous to keep some of the good bacteria around because it helps with digestion and can keep the bad bacteria in check on its own. Plus, when you kill all bacteria, the bad bacteria tend to recolonize first, making it that much harder to restore balance in the long run. That in mind, you’ll do better to use toothpaste and mouthwashes that leverage xylitol to starve the bad bacteria rather than harsh ones with alcohol that kill everything and dry out your tissues.

You could be missing debris or food particles. Needless to say, chunks of food left behind also create unpleasant odors. Brushing and flossing will take care of this.

You may have a pH imbalance. We dig into the science of having a neutral 7.0pH here, but the gist is that when your mouth becomes acidic (drops below 7.0pH), teeth demineralize and become more susceptible to decay. People with periodontal disease tend to have unbalanced mouths too. Things you do every day, like consuming coffee and sweets, or even your oral care products, can upset the pH balance of your mouth. The good news is, toothpastes and mouthwashes like the ones ORL produces are specially designed with a neutral 7.0pH, which can help your oral ecosystem reset itself.

Your diet could be the culprit. Foods like garlic, onions, and spices can impact your breath in a roundabout way because their digested compounds enter your bloodstream and eventually your lungs. Thus, anytime you exhale, you’re sending a bit of their aroma out with your breath. Sometimes people on specific diets, such as the ketogenic and Atkins diet, have similar issues. However, in these cases, it’s a ketone called acetone that causes the stench.

Dry mouth could be contributing to your bad breath. Saliva bathes your teeth in minerals that help keep them fortified and rinses away food particles. When there isn’t enough present or it isn’t the right consistency, problems start to set in. We cover dry mouth (aka Xerostomia) in depth here, but the short version is that  people who experience it tend to have more acidic mouths, which means teeth demineralize and infections are more likely to set in. Cavities and gum disease are more prevalent. Worse yet, people often try to treat their xerostomia through things like sugary drinks and lozenges. That not only feeds cavity-causing bacteria but increases acidity and speeds demineralization. 

Many people think that xerostomia is a side-effect of aging, but it’s not. It is, however, a side-effect of many medications, which means people are more likely to experience it as they get older and their medication list grows. While you can’t just come off your meds, you can consult with your doctor or pharmacist to see if medications could be to blame for your xerostomia and, if so, if there are alternates you can try. You can try integrating more xylitol into your daily practices too. This sugar-free sweetener, as noted earlier, starves cavity-causing bacteria, and can also increase salivary flow. It’s included in ORL toothpastes, mouthwashes, and sprays, so you can use it while brushing and for on-the-go freshness. Your doctor or dentist may have recommendations too.

A health condition could be causing your halitosis. Allergies, some cancers, acid reflux, and a myriad of other conditions can contribute to bad breath. If your mask breath persists despite changes in diet and hygiene, you should talk to your dentist and/ or general practitioner to identify and treat the underlying cause.

But, You Might Also Be Breathing Differently Because of Your Mask

Under ordinary circumstances, we humans breathe through our noses. The only time we typically deviate from this is when it’s difficult to breathe through the nose or when there’s some sort of obstruction.

Furthermore, “Inhaling through the nose stimulates the release of hormones and nitric oxide,” explains James Nestor, author of “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.” In an interview with the NY Times, he notes that nose breathing is better for this reason because it “helps to regulate vital functions like blood pressure and increase oxygenation throughout the body.”

Mouth breathing impacts your oral health too. On one hand, the shape of your jaw and teeth are impacted by it. Stop for just a moment and take note of what your tongue is doing right now. Chances are, your mouth is closed and your tongue is simultaneously pressing against the roof of your mouth and the backs of your front teeth. Without this mechanism, you’d likely have a malformed jaw. But, this isn’t the only oral issue that occurs when you breathe through your mouth instead of your nose.

Breathing Through Your Mouth Can Cause Xerostomia

Our bodies are designed for nose breathing, but what unfortunately happens is that we often switch over to mouth breathing when we wear a mask. That means we’re constantly pulling air over tissues that are designed to stay moist and can create an ecosystem quite like the Sahara. Plus, breathing like this often results in us taking rapid shallow breaths, which makes it even harder to relax and take the type of breaths that we’re supposed to.

You Can Treat Xerostomia and Teach Yourself to Breathe Better

We’ve covered ways to deal with xerostomia already, but suffice it to say, it’s better if you can avoid it in the first place. Paul DiTuro, a performance breathing specialist and former athlete and special forces medic interviewed by the NY Times says taking five quality breaths before putting on a mask and learning diaphragmatic breathing can help.

According to the specialists at Harvard Medical School, we’re all born with the knowledge and ability to engage the diaphragm while breathing, but we get out of the habit as we age. You can get back on track by partaking in regular four-step practice sessions lasting 5-10 minutes each.

  1. Lie on your back on a flat surface with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent.
  2. Place one hand on your stomach (just below your ribs), and the other hand on your upper chest.
  3. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. If you’re doing it right, the hand on your stomach will rise but the hand on your chest will remain still.
  4. Tighten your abdominal muscles and slowly release them as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your stomach should return to its normal position.

Fight Mask Breath with ORL

ORL gets to the root of mask breath by creating a healthy oral ecosystem. This starts with a neutral 7.0pH formula and includes healthful ingredients like organic xylitol to keep bad bacteria in check and promote healthy saliva as well as a myriad of plant-based essential oils and vitamins and minerals to nourish your smile. When used as part of your regular oral care routine and paired with regular checkups, ORL can help you keep mask breath at bay naturally. Explore our full line of toothpastes, mouthwashes, and breath spray, with mouthwatering flavor profiles to suit the whole family, in our online catalog.