mouth washBad breath: we know what it is. It’s the odor that results from bacterial decay in the mouth. Plaque is living and, like any living thing, it creates chemical byproducts from its life functions. Many people mistakenly believe that bad breath is a medical condition, however. They think having bad breath is the result of being sick or unclean, so they need to do something to stop it.

For decades now mouthwash has been marketed as the solution to bad breath. In the 1920s many companies began to market personal care products in ways that psychologically manipulated people into thinking that any sort of body odor had a social stigma and they would not be successful unless they took serious measures to fix it. So for the first time ever products were being invented and sold to fix problems most people felt at the time were everyday annoyances: sweat, body odor, dandruff, and halitosis.

Listerine was one of these products. Originally created in 1879 as a disinfectant and named for Joseph Lister, the British surgeon who pioneered antiseptic surgery, it had been used for a variety of purposes including as a floor cleaner before being retooled and remarketed to eliminate bad breath. Listerine actually sold halitosis as the problem and then offered its mouthwash as a solution for spinsters and people who wanted to find love or a better job. It worked like a charm.

Does mouthwash itself work? It does. Because it’s an antiseptic, it does kill the bacteria in your mouth and reduce bacterial and tooth decay. Some mouthwashes also neutralize acids and keep the mouth moist (dry mouth can also lead to oral health problems and an increase in bacteria). Most mouthwashes are also flavored and leave the mouth smelling minty and feeling fresh.

In order to get the full benefit of mouthwash, you should rinse with it for at least 30 seconds so that the antiseptic has a chance to infiltrate all of the nooks and crannies in your mouth. Then you should spit it out, not swallow it. Do not drink water afterwards either. Mouthwash is not the same as toothpaste and should not be used after brushing in order that the protective fluoride residue toothpaste leaves on the teeth is not also rinsed away.

Used in conjunction with brushing and flossing, mouthwash will help maintain your oral health and reduce cavities over time. Mouthwash is not a substitute for brushing or flossing, however. Bacteria can be stubborn to remove. You do need to spend that time with your toothbrush in the morning and the evening to keep your teeth in great shape.

If you have any questions about halitosis or whether you should add a mouthwash to your oral health regimen, ask your dentist the next time you go in for your routine cleaning.