03/19/2012 03:47 pm ET Updated May 19, 2012

Specialty Products for Bad Breath Have Come a Long, Long Way

If you stepped into the 1800s (or sped into them at 88 mph, if you prefer), what would you do when you found that you had bad breath? In any age, you'd probably want to avoid making yourself conspicuous with halitosis. So how would you take care of it? Well, you might walk (not drive) to the nearest apothecary (no pharmacies yet) and purchase a non-synthetic boar's-hair toothbrush and some tooth powder (no toothpaste yet), and maybe also pluck some hairs off the nearest horse's tail (or use silk if you can afford it, as dental floss still hasn't been invented).

You can see how this would all be a shock to the modern American. It just goes to show that in the past 100 years or so, specialty breath-freshening products have progressed light-years ahead of where they once were. Today's spectrum of oxygenating, all-natural, halitosis-fighting dental care devices makes it hard to feel misty-eyed and nostalgic about those unappetizing 19th-century products.

Let's start with the toothbrush. Recently, this little device celebrated a big milestone: Feb. 24, 2012 marked the 74th anniversary of the nylon-bristled toothbrush. This might not sound like much, but to put it in perspective, before 1938 nearly all toothbrushes were made by forcing boar's bristles into wooden sticks.

That's right. If you'd had the pleasure of brushing your pearly whites before Pearl Harbor, you'd have done so with pig's hair generously sprinkled with toothpowder, which could be made with baking soda, diatoms, ground shells, bone or silica grit.

Today's specialty toothbrushes look positively space-age by comparison. As one Wired article noted, nylon was invented in 1935 as a replacement for silk. It was eventually used to make parachutes for GIs fighting abroad, but first scientists found a use for it at home: to replace those awful boar's bristles. The first synthetic toothbrush sold for 50 cents (or about eight dollars today, the news source estimated), and Americans immediately bought it in droves.

Other dental care and specialty breath-freshening products have evolved considerably over the ages. For instance, prior to 1812, anyone who had food stuck in their teeth used a silver toothpick or fashioned one from a sliver of wood. Or they flossed with hair. It wasn't until 1812 that an American doctor, Levi Spear Parmly, introduced silk dental floss. Today, floss is made from nylon, polyethylene or even Teflon!

And consider specialty mouth-wetting lozenges, oxygenating rinses and alcohol-free mouthwashes. Today, such products can be bought online for a song. But just a century ago, no such thing existed.

That isn't to say that there was nothing. One of the first mass-marketed mouthwashes in the world (you know the one) was made using alcohol. In fact, plenty of people still use it today. And like their 19th-century counterparts, these folks are doing their mouths more harm than good.

You see, alcohol doesn't eliminate the germs that cause bad breath. Instead, it kills all but the strongest microbes in your mouth, leaving the remaining few to happily recolonize your tongue. And every time you gargle with an alcohol-based product, you make your mouth drier and drier, while flirting with bad breath and a condition called xerostomia.

This word is the clinical term for "dry mouth." It comes from Greek. (The same word root was used to name Xerox, the manufacturer of the first dry, ink-free copy machine.) Xerostomia often affects elderly people. Their salivary glands can have a tough time producing enough moisture to keep the tongue wet and the breath fresh.

However, it is never a good idea to rinse with an alcohol-based mouthwash, since this substance evaporates easily, taking the mouth's moisture along with it. Instead, it's better to ditch the 19th-century solution and try all-natural, alcohol-free specialty mouth rinses that oxygenate the palate, killing germs and neutralizing odor.

While we're at it, did you know that your nose can also give you bad breath? That's because sinusitis and post-nasal drip can cause nasal fluids to run down the back of your throat. This often leads to a cough, and just as often it gives your oral bacteria sustenance.

Since cold and flu season is still hanging around, you might be experiencing post-nasal drip right now. What could you have done about it a century ago? Nothing. What can you do now? Use a specialty breath freshening nasal spray. This product clears away excess nasal fluid and freshens your breath at the same time.

Finally, I can't conclude without mentioning the tongue scraper. If there's one specialty breath-freshening tool that hasn't changed all that much over the centuries, this is it. Even in ancient India, people used metal or ivory tongue cleaners to reduce their chances of bad breath. Today, the materials are a little more modern, but the principle is still the same. Study after study has shown that specialty tongue scrapers can remove gunk from the back of the tongue. This inhibits bacterial growth and freshens breath, making these products a truly 21st-century tool!

For more by Dr. Harold Katz, click here.

For more on dental health, click here.