• evolution of man

Halitosis Through The Ages

The problem of bad breath, or halitosis, has plagued mankind for centuries. While it probably had little affect on the lives of our cavemen ancestors, modern social pressures can be very difficult to uphold when suffering from mal odorous breath.

The problem of bad breath, or halitosis, has plagued mankind for centuries. While it probably had little affect on the lives of our cavemen ancestors, modern social pressures can be very difficult to uphold when suffering from mal odorous breath.


Many people who suffer from the condition for a prolonged period of time find it leads to a change in personal behaviours, as they attempt to cover their mouths or otherwise try to hide their bad breath when eating, speaking and smiling. If symptoms persist or worsen, there is a high chance that the sufferer will experience a lack of confidence and self-esteem, and this in turn can cause them to isolate themselves from others, greatly reducing their quality of life.


Indeed civilisations throughout history have suggested numerous remedies to tackle the symptoms of bad breath with varying success. While some may now seem a little far-fetched or even totally pointless, the advantages and disadvantages of each method have all helped to shape the treatment options available today.


Even in the very beginning, the ancient Greeks reputedly used ‘fresh-breath’ home remedies such as rinsing their mouths with white wine, anise seed and myrrh, according to the Academy of General Dentistry. The Romans are also thought to have concocted a mouthwash of sorts, using sage, cinnamon, juniper (spice) seeds, root of cypress (tree from conifer family) and rosemary leaves, to ensure they were always ‘fresh breathed’. Another variant was provided by the ancient Egyptians, who are believed to have fashioned breath-sweetening pellets of frankincense and myrrh, and in the medieval Arabic Empire, people chewed mouth-freshening twigs of the salvadora. (Not unlike the neem twigs chewed in India and the ‘chew-sticks’ still used in African countries to clean the teeth.)


The Chinese were the first to come up with the idea of brushing the teeth to eliminate foul-smelling breath in the late 15th Century, and although this was effective it didn’t become popular in other parts of the world for many more years. Toothpicks were a far more common mode of freshening the breath, usually made of bone, ivory, wood or various metals, which people used to remove food debris from between the teeth and sweeten the breath.


By the 16th century, many physicians were claiming that tobacco had healing properties that would be effective for a range of illnesses such as lockjaw, toothache and bad breath. In 1588, Thomas Hariot infamously promoted the smoking of tobacco for health reasons, recommending it as a “purgeth superfluous fleame … openth all pores and passages of the body”[i]. Ironically, he later became one of the first people in England to die of a smoking-related disease, when he developed cancerous ulcers in his nose.


1683 brought with it Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of living bacteria, which came about when he examined samples of his mouth and those of four others under his improved microscopes. He went on to deduce that these bacteria could be controlled by dental hygiene, but the odours they produced still needed addressing.


Cachous were all the rage in the UK and the US by the 19th Century, which were tins of breath freshening candies made from cardamom, ambergris, musk, essence of violet, essence of rose, licorice or oil of cinnamon. This gave way to Listerine mouthwash in 1895, which later became the first over-the-counter mouthwash sold in the US in 1914.


Since then, all manner of dentifrices were fabricated in an attempt to successfully tackle bad breath. Advances came at an accelerated rate once Dr J. Tonzetich established the main cause of halitosis to be the VSCs[ii], volatile sulphur compounds, during the 1960’s and 70’s. He found that these gases were created when the bacteria in the mouth broke down food particles, and exhaling these gases caused the oral mal odour.


Nowadays, we know even more about the causes of bad breath. As our technology has advanced and our research methods have become far more intricate and complex, we have developed our knowledge and understanding of halitosis significantly. Consequently, we have been able to produce highly effective solutions to treat bad breath.


For example, from studies we have found that zinc acetate is the most effective form of zinc to fight the VSC’s[iii], as the ions bind to the hydrogen sulphide produced by oral bacteria and react with the sulphur to produce odourless insoluble sulphides[iv]. Other research has also shown that the addition of chlorhexidine breaks down the methyl mercaptan produced by oral bacteria (an even more aggressive substance than hydrogen sulphide), enabling the zinc to bind to the sulphur molecules more easilyiv,[v]. Chlorhexidine’s ability to adhere to the oral cavity also provides a longer-lasting effect[vi].


Products that utilise these latest findings, such as the CB12 safe breath rinse, are most effective against the symptoms of halitosis, because they neutralise the VSCs and eliminate the mal odour completely. Available in two flavours – mint menthol and mild mint menthol – CB12 has also been shown to last up to 12 hours, for all day fresh breath.


From the ancient Greeks all the way through to the modern day, we have been searching for effective solutions to the embarrassing affects of halitosis. Thanks to the latest research techniques and the broad understanding we now have about the condition, the search may finally be over.


[i] Thomas Hariot, 1590, “A briefe and true account of the new found land of Virginia”, abstract link digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

[ii] Tonzetich J. “Production and origin of oral malodour: a review of mechanisms and methods of analysis”, Journal of Periodontology (1977) 48: 13-20

[iii] Thrane PS, Young A, Jonski G, et al. “A new mouth rinse combining zinc and chlorhexidine in low concentrations provides superior efficacy against halitosis compared to existing formulations: a double blind clinical study”. J Clin Dent 2007; 18(3):82-87

[iv] Young A, Jonski G and Rölla G. “Combined affect of zinc ions and cationic antibacterial agents on intraoral volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs)”. International Dental Journal 2003; 53:237-242.

[v] Erovic Ademovski S, Lingström P, et al. “Comparison of different treatment modalities for oral halitosis”. Acta Odontologica Scandinavica 2012; 70(3):224-233

[vi] Thrane PS, Jonski G, et al. “Zn and CHX mouthwash affective against VSCs responsible for halitosis for up to 12 hours”. Dental Health 2009;48(3)8-12