You’re coming back to the office after lunch and you realize you have some killer garlic breath. Not to worry — just pop some chewing gum into your mouth for fresh breath that will stop your co-workers from asking which Italian restaurant you ate at.
But even if it’s a useful quick solution to bad breath or a grimy feeling mouth, is chewing gum actually good for your oral health? Or is it simply masking problems?
The Benefits of Chewing Gum
Besides being a helpful quick breath-freshener, chewing gum is actually helping your oral health in some ways.
For example, dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum for about twenty minutes after a meal. This is because the act of chewing encourages your mouth to produce saliva. That saliva then helps carry bacteria away from the teeth, effectively doing some after-meal cleanup for your teeth and gums. This “saliva rinse” can ultimately help reduce or prevent plaque buildup, helping protect your teeth from decay.
The gum itself also helps clean your teeth. It is able to trap bacteria that would otherwise remain on your teeth. One study showed that after just ten minutes of chewing, a piece of gum has trapped about 100 million bacteria!
In addition, some sugar-free chewing gums include xylitol as a replacement sweetener. This sugar alcohol is naturally present in the fibers of some fruits and vegetables. And while other replacement sweeteners are helpful only in the context of replacing sugar, research suggests that xylitol may actually have its own benefits: Some studies have indicated that this sweetener can inhibit the growth of some of the bacteria that cause cavities, and may even help support the remineralization of teeth.
The Downsides of Chewing Gum
Unfortunately, all of these upsides come with disclaimers. For example, while xylitol itself can help strengthen and protect teeth, it is often paired with ingredients that counteract its positive effects by encouraging dental erosion. And while salivation can carry bacteria and food particles away from your teeth, that by itself is not enough to keep your teeth clean and prevent decay.
And of course, while most things are fine in moderation, just like with anything else, chewing gum excessively can come with its own risks. In fact, some people report that chewing gum exacerbates the effects of TMJ. If you suffer from temporomandibular joint disorder, the repetitive motion of chewing could put further stress on your jaw and cause pain or even more damage. And if you have TMJ and don’t know it yet, chewing gum could bring that issue to the forefront.
And finally, the biggest risk of chewing gum may actually be its ability to freshen your breath and make your teeth feel clean. The best way to maintain excellent oral hygiene is by brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing daily. The “freshly brushed” feeling that chewing gum can give you may encourage you to skip the toothbrush when you need it.
You don’t have to stop chewing gum — but if excessive chewing is putting stress on your jaw, or if you find yourself forgetting to brush as a result of that minty clean feeling, it may be time to cut back on the habit.