You may not have noticed your own bad breath until now, when you’re trapping your nostrils behind those face masks we’re all supposed to wear. Has your breath always been this bad? Probably, at least some of the time. Has anyone noticed? Again, probably.
But the thing is, now, you’re the only person to know — strangers, friends and colleagues aren’t going to get close enough to find out, even once the masks are off. And for that reason, your bad breath doesn’t matter at all.
Bad breath is ultimately a social construct. So are whatever other bodily smells you might produce — they are only “bad” in the context of someone else being able to process them as such. The whole breath industry, in fact, is designed around the premise that someone else will notice your bad breath, and that you ought to manage it preemptively. At their core, breath mints and sugar-free gum are products of self-shame and embarrassment. You’re likely nose-blind to your usual scents — you might even smell like soup right now and not know it. Even if you put on deodorant and cologne, eventually the scent disappears from your radar. From your perspective, you smell like nothing. From the perspective of whoever you’re quarantined with, the same is true, too — if they think you smell bad now, it’s because they always have.
Okay, so there is some objective truth to bad breath and body odor, particularly depending on your habits and diet. Foods like coffee or onions tend to stick around in our mouths longer, and given how fragrant they are on their own, they’re doubly unpleasant in the partially digested form. Alcohol, particularly when combined with sugar, is notably disgusting as it breaks down among your teeth. Smoking and using tobacco products will give you bad breath for the same reason as food or alcohol, but can also contribute to gum disease that exacerbates the problem. And obviously, if you’re negligent about brushing your teeth and flossing, you can probably do the math and assume your breath sucks. Sometimes, bad breath is simply a sign you had Italian for lunch — sometimes it’s a sign you have cancer.
But now, as you wear a face mask and inhale your own breath immediately as it leaves your mouth, you can get an idea of just how truly bad it is. Ultimately, the mask is your saving grace, both lessening the spread of your breath and shielding those who are wearing masks themselves, preventing your disgusting mouth air from reaching the nostrils of anyone else. Swig some mouthwash if it bothers you so much, but no one else cares or, indeed, knows. Beyond the mask, too, physical distance ought to render these scents nil. You can’t smell the breath of a person six feet away from you, and if you can, well, someone’s surely brought it up to this unfortunate stinker before.
Does any of this have long-term implications?
Perhaps. Mask-wearing and compulsory distancing are going to remain long after we’re allowed back out of our homes. Some may cling to them in perpetuity. Though we may feel less concerned about the possibility of a co-worker noticing our latte breath, we’ll continue to be more aware of it ourselves.
This means that all those products banking on your anxiety over other people’s opinions will have to shift their message: Strive for fresh breath not because someone else will smell it, but because you alone will.
To that end, the marketing from the superficial-improvement industry could even be more honest. You think you’ve wanted these products to change how other people perceive you, when in fact, all along, you wanted these products to change how you perceived yourself.