The History and Science Behind Your Terrible Breath

After the defeat of Cleopatra’s forces by Octavian (later Augustus, emperor of Rome), the Egyptian queen and her lover Marc Antony fled to Egypt. In Shakespeare’s imagining, one of Cleopatra’s greatest fears was the the horrid breath of the Romans. Shown here: “The Death of Cleopatra” by Reginald Arthur, 1892. (Wikimedia Commons)

Persistent mouth-stink has been dousing the flames of passion for millennia. Why haven’t we come up with a cure?

By Brian Handwerk

In The Art of Love, the Roman poet Ovid offers some words of advice to the amorous. To attract the opposite sex, he writes, a seductive woman must learn to dance, hide her bodily blemishes and refrain from laughing if she has a black tooth. But above all, she must not smell foul.

“She whose breath is tainted should never speak before eating,” Ovid instructs, “and she should always stand at a distance from her lover’s face.”

Though the quality of this advice is questionable, the dilemma it describes remains all too familiar. Ancient peoples around the world spent centuries experimenting with so-called cures for bad breath; scientists today continue to puzzle over the factors that lay behind it. Yet stinky breath continues to mystify us, haunting our most intimate moments and following us around like a green stench cloud.

Why is this scourge so persistent? The answer requires a 2,000-year detour through history, and might say more about our own social neuroses than about the scientific causes of this condition.

Listerine ads promised to kill germs instantly and stop bad breath. They also played off consumers’ fear of social rejection—like this one, from a campaign that began in the 1930s.(Kilmer House / Johnson & Johnson)

Our efforts to battle bad breath showcase a history of human inventiveness. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, appear to have invented the breath mint some 3,000 years ago. They created concoctions of boiled herbs and spices—frankincense, myrrh and cinnamon were popular flavorings—mixed with honey to make sweets that could be chewed or sucked. In the 15th century, the Chinese invented the first bristle toothbrushes, made by harvesting hairs from pigs’ necks. More than 5,000 years ago, Babylonians began trying to brush away bad breath with twigs.

Talmudic scholars report that the Torah decried bad breath as a “major disability,” meaning it could be grounds for a wife to seek divorce or could prevent priests from carrying out their duties. Fortunately, the Talmud also suggests some remedies, including rinsing with a mouthwash of oil and water, or the chewing of a mastic gum made from tree resin. This resin, which has since been shown to have antibacterial properties, is still used as gum in Greece and Turkey today.

In Pliny the Elder’s early encyclopedia Natural Historypenned a few years before he was killed in the Vesuvius eruption, the Roman philosopher offered this advice: “To impart sweetness to the breath, it is recommended to rub the teeth with ashes of burnt mouse-dung and honey.” Pliny added that picking one’s teeth with a porcupine quill was recommended, while a vulture’s feather actually soured the breath. While many of these efforts no doubt freshened the breath temporarily, it seems that none provided a lasting fix.

Literary references from around the world confirm that bad breath has long been regarded as the enemy of romance. In the poet Firdawsi’s 10th-century Persian epic, the Shahnama, persistent mouth-stink dramatically changes the course of history. The tale tells of how King Darab’s young bride Nahid was sent home to Macedonia because of her intolerable bad breath. Unbeknown to her either her husband or father, King Phillip, she was already pregnant with a baby boy.

Her son would grow up to be none other than Iskander—better known as Alexander the Great. That meant that, in Firdawsi’s tale, Alexander was not a foreigner but a legitimate king of Persian blood reclaiming his throne.

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic Canterbury Tales, the “jolly lover” Absalon prepares for a kiss by scenting his breath with cardamom and licorice. (Unfortunately, the object of his attentions ends up presenting him with her naked rear-end rather than her lips.) In describing the horrors of Rome, William Shakespeare’s Cleopatra laments that “in their thick breaths, / Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded, / And forced to drink their vapour.” In Mucho Ado About Nothing, Benedick muses, “If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the north star.”

Jane Austen’s elegant novels don’t dwell on topics like bad breath. But the author was more candid in her personal correspondence. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she once complained of some neighbors: “I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.”…

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s