Breath mints don't really work. No matter which space-age compounds they boast (Retsyn! Neutrazin!), breath mints just temporarily mask your bad breath and foul-tasting mouth by tasting and smelling stronger than the enemy. They don't fundamentally change anything: That would require getting rid of the anaerobic bacteria in your mouth that cause bad breath, and you need to brush and floss and scrape your tongue to do that. Retsyn, for instance, is just natural flavoring, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and a nutritional supplement called copper gluconate, none of which will kill bacteria.
Still, a mint can provide short-term confidence and temporarily tame your pie-hole stench, plus it can make your mouth taste better. In short, they're your best bet in a pinch, and some mints are well worth having around for emergency situations. A nice lady at the National Confectioners Association told me that in food, drug, and mass-merchandise stores last year, the breath freshener category was booming, up 15.3 percent, while the rest of the candy market grew only 3.2 percent. But which mints are best? I ran a few tests.
Test No. 1: Morning Mouth. Morning mouth is caused by bacteria (plaque) having time to grow overnight. Let's say, after an evening out, you wake up someplace ... unexpected, without a toothbrush. You need to freshen up for the cab ride home to your Colgate. To re-create this, I tried a different mint each morning before brushing my teeth.
Test No. 2: Pungent Food. In general, diet does not cause bad breath, except in the immediate sense that if you eat onions, your mouth smells like onions. To approximate the scenario where you've downed an odorific dish and want to cover your tracks, I bought a jar of minced garlic and shoveled spoonfuls into my mouth, which soon grew alive with foul juices. Then I sent in the mints, reloading with more garlic after each battle. I had to run this test over two nights—by the sixth garlic spoonful, I felt ill.
Test No. 3: Cigarettes. A classic breath-mint foe. They make your mouth smell and taste like ash. To test this, I took big drags off a Camel Light, then swished the smoke around my tongue and gums like an evil mouthwash. I tried a different mint after each cigarette.
After these tests, I ranked the mints from worst to first:
Breath-freshening gums fade in flavor almost instantly. Then you've got a tasteless lump of cud and nowhere good to spit it out. Another weakness: Some gum ingredients, like the chlorophyll in Clorets, are designed to sponge up bad odors. This ends up backfiring, because the gum quickly tastes like your bad breath—yuck.
Dentyne Ice gum tastes alcoholic, like a strange liqueur you try on a whim and later regurgitate violently. That's not because there's alcohol in the gum, which might kill germs, but rather because of a foul tasting sugar-free sweetener called Maltitol. Dentyne Ice's taste, though strong, couldn't beat morning mouth, or any other stenches. Instead, it accompanied them. Like all gums, its flavor gave out within 15 seconds, meaning the awful taste was mitigated by its near-instant fade to cudness.
Clorets tastes bad but not quite as bad. It did nothing for cigarette breath. As the gum hung out in my mouth, the chlorophyll soaked up a smoky flavor, becoming a sort of chewable ashtray.
The lone non-gum in the bottom tier: Penguin Caffeinated Peppermints. These should be perfect for morning mouth, waking you up while freshening your breath. Unfortunately, it takes three Penguin mints to equal the caffeine in one cola. Also, it takes only one Penguin mint to taste like utter crap. What twisted mint sadist is behind these unpalatable flavors?
When I asked my local cigar shop for a good breath freshener, they handed me C. Howard's Spearmints. These were by far the best-tasting mints I tried, perhaps because they used real spearmint oil. Sadly, they were weak on freshening power. Absolutely no match for test No. 2, they seemed to melt away in a fierce garlic bubble. Likewise with the ciggies. If you're looking for a candy, though, give these a try.
Mentos often gets called a candy but calls itself "The Chewy Mint." It's great-tasting but isn't much of a freshmaker. In fact, like the gums, it absorbed some odors. Oddly, the Mentos/garlic combo wasn't half bad.
Life Savers Pep-O-Mint is our first somewhat effective mint—it did the trick on morning mouth with a nice, peppermint tang. Still, it was out of its league on other tests: The garlic just killed it. Four Life Savers put a small dent in my cigarette mouth, but that's already one-third of your Pep-O-Mint pack. These are OK for generic freshening, but they can't handle serious problems.
Certs Powerful Mints made me sneeze each time I had one. Not a big deal, except the sneeze often expelled the mint from my mouth. Taste was metallic but did the job: After Dentyne Ice couldn't clear my bed breath, I let Certs come in and kick ass. It wiped out not only morning mouth but also Dentyne Ice mouth. Against stronger foes like garlic, though, the retsyn couldn't keep pace.
Tiny tic tacs' power can be carefully modulated. Pop just one for a tease or six at a time for high-dose freshening. Two tacs failed to de-swamp my garlic mouth. Five tacs freshened the front of my mouth but left a bog at the back of my tongue. Didn't try 20 tacs and wouldn't recommend it. Still, a decent mint, overall.
Breath Savers taste delicious and handled morning mouth just fine. Against garlic and cigarettes, they countered with a zing of reviving freshness. But the bad guys soon beat down the mint, and after a minute or so I was back where I started.
We're all familiar with curiously strong Altoids. Using real peppermint oil, they offer genuine flavor. And oh, the intensity! Breathe in after sucking one of these—it's like an arctic gale. Altoids showed my morning mouth who's boss. Even against garlic and cigarettes, they dominated. They have the power to give you a whole new mouth. You can modulate them like tic tacs (three Altoids will destroy anything in their path), and they come in a nice, reusable metal tin. This, my friends, is a mint. But still not the best mint. That honor goes to another foreign upstart, one much less well-known.
Smint, a tiny mint made in Spain, is a pure delight. Its sleek Euro packaging dispenses a single Smint at the push of a button. They're small enough to be modulated but pack the punch of a much bigger mint. Its main ingredient, xylitol, may even fight cavities. One Smint held its own against garlic, maintaining minty taste and freshness. Two Smints were even more powerful. While lesser mints leave you with ashtray mouth, a Smint after a cigarette will make you quite kissable. Every bit as strong as Altoids, Smints offer the best combination of taste, power, portability, and packaging. Truly a mint like no other.