How to Avoid Getting Coffee Breath

Espresso pouring into a small shot glass

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

How can something that tastes so good while you're drinking it turn so interpersonally dangerous once you've finished? If you've ever watched your cubemate recoil in horror when you offered a friendly, "Hhhhello there. Hhhhow are you doing today?," then you know how bad even good coffee can smell after the fact. Really bad.

All food and drinks that we consume have the potential to leave behind some odor: Obviously the more pungent the flavor, the more prominent the funk. (Hold back on the curry if you expect to get smoochy later, buster.)

Coffee, however, is a particularly potent offender for a few reasons, giving it an extra push up the stink-o-meter. For one thing, several key components of coffee can make it very mouth drying: The toxicologic effects of caffeine can slow saliva production, and darker-roasted coffees tend to leave the palate more parched than lighter ones. A decrease in saliva allows bacteria to thrive inside your maw, and those bacteria on your tongue, gums, teeth, and the inside of your cheeks are what make things turn foul on the double.

Some coffee types are even worse than others. Espresso, for instance, is so concentrated and viscous that it can linger on your palate for what seems like eons. Coffees taken with milk have the additional disadvantage of smelling acrid on account of the dairy, which can also encourage bacteria growth.

What's worse, most of us drink our coffee either after we've brushed our teeth and are on the road to work or school, or before we interact with other people: Simply keeping your mouth closed for a long period of time will also help those bacteria along, so those long, silent commutes spent staring at the back of someone else's head on the train is not going to do you any favors, either.

And then, of course, there's the fact that bad coffee is certainly never, ever going to smell good when exhaled into someone else's face—just another of many reasons to stop drinking bad coffee, right? (Not that you're drinking bad coffee. I know you better than that.)

How to Avoid Coffee Breath

No, terrible coffee breath is not always inevitable. You can stop it before it starts by drinking plenty of water before, during, and after that Americano. (You could probably use more water anyway, let's face it.) Also, avoiding a bunch of additives will keep the smell simple, if nothing else: Second-hand hazelnut is about as pleasant as it sounds.

You can also pair your coffee with an odor-neutralizing snack like a plain roll, apple slices, or a piece of fresh ginger (though a ginger cookie or candy will do in a pinch). Lemon is another option: Some folks even like to take their espresso with a twist of peel, but a bit of lemon in your water will offer similar protection.

Check Yourself

If you're unsure how much damage this morning's caffeine binge has done, there are a few ways to tell. Naturally, people running for the hills is a good sign, but a less socially mortifying test is to lick the back of your hand and give it a whiff. It sounds weird and gross because, well, the human body is weird and gross; thankfully it only takes a second, and can spare you hours of suffering in solitary.

(Don't do it in public, for Pete's sake! Go into the bathroom or something. You're trying to keep friends here.)

Get Fresh


You might be doing it wrong. [Photograph: theskinimin on Flickr]

Obviously, brushing your teeth is the fastest way to keeping friends close by post-cappuccino, and there's always gum to be chewed. You could also keep a stash of tea-tree toothpicks nearby for a subtler scent, or pop and chew a pinch of fennel seeds: Mukhwas, a popular Indian mouth freshener, is a blend of fennel, coriander, and sesame seeds, often flavored with anise, rose, coconut, or orange oils. (Easy to make at home, you can also find mukhwas at most Indian markets.)

How do you fight coffee breath? Sound off in the comments (and perhaps passive-aggressively share the link to this post with those who need it).