As much as we love swapping tips and tricks to solve our biggest beauty dilemmas, there are some questions we may not feel comfortable asking our friends about, let alone Google without going incognito. Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. In this series, we’re tackling those embarrassing beauty queries by turning to experts in the field to get you the answers you need — minus any awkward feelings.

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we’ve all had bad breath at some point (like, earlier today, even). And while many people think that garlic– and onion-laden foods are to blame, anyone who has had persistent bad breath knows that it’s not always that simple. To get to the bottom of this not-so-cute hygiene issue, we turned to the pros. So, sit back, scroll, and learn what causes bad breath — and how to stop it in its tracks.

The Big Secrets Behind Bad Breath

Brit + Co: Give it to me straight: What causes bad breath?

Lewis Gross, NYC-based dentist and director of Holistic Dentists and founder of Alka-White: Many people think that odorous foods cause bad breath, so they avoid eating garlic and onions before a big date. In reality, these aromatic foods [may] have a pungent aroma and are not the cause of halitosis [AKA bad breath]. True bad breath is caused by a disruption in the oral microbiome and the overproduction of volatile sulfurous compounds by anaerobic bacteria.

B+C: Okay, in layman’s terms now.

Victoria Veytsman, NYC-based dentist, Top RealSelf Contributor, and owner of Cosmetic Dental Studios: Halitosis is caused primarily by bacteria in the mouth, on the tongue, and under the gums. There are other dental causes too, like cavities or crowns that don’t fit well [because food can get trapped there].

B+C: Isn’t there such a thing as good bacteria, though?

LG: Bacteria can come in both good and bad forms. Our mouths contain certain types of bacteria to help us break down the foods we eat. However, the foods we eat also affect the amount of bacteria in our mouths. When we eat foods that are highly acid forming, it causes our mouths to become more acidic and harmful bacteria to grow. This bacterial imbalance is one of the main causes of bad breath.

B+C: So acidic foods are part of the issue. Are there any foods that people often overlook?

LG: Acidic-forming foods are usually foods that have been processed, such as dairy, certain meats, grains, all simple carbohydrates (starches), and sugar. Alcohol, coffee, soda, and energy drinks are all dehydrating and acid-forming. Citrus fruits and vinegar are acidic on the teeth but alkaline-forming to the body.

Harold Katz, California-based dentist and founder of The California Breath Clinics: Dairy foods can cause major bacteria in your mouth. This happens because their proteins are loaded amino acids which contain dense proteins. Bad breath bacteria create odors by breaking down proteins, and the more “sulfur-laden” the proteins, the worse the odor. Milk, cheese, and ice cream are all hidden culprits.

B+C: Apart from acidic foods, do braces or Invisalign affect breath?

VV: If you follow up with oral hygiene and regular cleanings, this shouldn’t cause bad breath. It is easier, though, for bacteria that causes bad breath to get caught in brackets and on retainers, so be sure to keep everything clean!

The Solution for stopping Bad Breath

B+C: Alright, so you can avoid eating acidic foods and keep dental accessories sparkly clean, but is there anything else you can do to prevent bad breath?

LG: You can prevent bad breath by staying hydrated, eating less acid-forming foods, paying regular visits to your dentist and oral hygienist, doing oil-pulling to detox, and keeping up with your oral hygiene by using products such as alkaline mouthwash. Alka-White Mouthwash ($17) is an alkaline oral care all-in-one solution that neutralizes the acidic environment in your mouth and therefore balances the oral microbiome to prevent the proliferation of bad breath- causing bacteria.

VV: Don’t forget to floss! It will get rid of the bacteria between the teeth and under the gums.

B+C: What about at the dentist’s office? Are there any solutions there that you can’t get at home?

VV: You can go for more regular cleanings and even a deep cleaning. There are also laser treatments available now that loosen the bacteria from the tongue and tonsils.

The Big Picture

B+C: If all of the above doesn’t work and bad breath just won’t quit, could that suggest a larger health problem?

Timothy Chase, cosmetic dentist and practicing partner at SmilesNY: Yes, bad breath can mean you have a cavity, a failing filling, an infected tooth, or even gum disease that can lead to loss of teeth and has been associated with other systemic diseases, such as coronary artery disease, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

And there you have it: the reasons for — and solution for stopping — bad breath. According to Chase, a dentist can help you rule out and treat a dental origin of bad breath (if there is one) or point you in the right direction if the problem is from another area. So if you find yourself struggling with stinky breath despite your best dental hygiene attempts, it’s time to make good on your half-yearly visit. Your mouth, and your breath, will thank you.

Have any more awkward beauty questions? Let us know @BritandCo!

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Illustrations by Sarah Tate

(Photos via dolgachov/Getty; Moncherie/Getty; Science Photo Library/Getty)