Rinses designed to combat bad breath are not what they used to be. While today specialty breath fresheners exist to knock out halitosis immediately, the history of mouthwashes and rinses is littered with ideas that, in retrospect, sound eccentric.
A historical review published in the journal Periodontology 2000 states that the first mouthrinse on record appeared in China approximately 5,700 years ago. It is an unusual one. To treat halitosis caused by gum disease, physicians of the period recommended swishing with a child's urine.
Other early remedies sound nearly as unpleasant. Hippocrates, the Greek physician often credited as founding the Western medical tradition, suggested rinsing with a mixture of salt, alum and vinegar.
The study says that the Zene Artzney, a popular dental guide published in Germany in 1530, came closer to what is considered a modern mouthwash. The remedy is "closer" mainly because it addresses food particles, tooth decay and bad breath.
The book stated that "always after eating, wash the mouth with wine or beer, in order to wash away all that might adhere to the teeth and make them decay, produce bad odor, and destroy them."
It is hard to imagine what the teeth of a Renaissance-era German must have looked and smelled like after being rinsed in wine three times a day. More recent methods probably overcome some of the drawbacks of a wine-based rinse, but the basic concept is nearer the mark - namely, that tooth decay can cause halitosis.
The report continues in the year 1895, when two men, Joseph and Jordan Lambert, took a surgical antiseptic fluid and turned it into a mouthwash. The mixture was a combination of thymol, menthol, eucalyptol and methyl salicylate. The pair of entrepreneurs called it Listerine, and it began to be sold to dentists that year.
While its popularity was undeniable, the original formula was marketed far beyond its potential, according to the authors of the book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The duo writes that "Listerine...was invented in the nineteenth century as powerful surgical antiseptic. It was later sold, in distilled form, as both a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea."
The ingredients in some current mouthwashes can still occasionally touch on the bizarre, as in a recent Chinese study that analyzed the effectiveness of extract from nutgalls, or wasp egg pouches that are deposited in tree bark, on bad breath. For the record, it didn't work.
However, some specialty breath freshening rinses really do work today, typically by eliminating the sulfuric compounds that contribute to the smell of halitosis. It has been a long journey, but rinsing one's way to fresh breath is finally possible.