Due to the unprecedented events of 2020, there’s a new oral health development that warrants a discussion so we can assist you and your loved ones along your path to optimal oral health.
Dentists are noticing a dramatic uptick in the prevalence of dry mouth, gum disease, and tooth decay.
This uptick is being attributed to habitually wearing masks for long periods of time, which is why the media has named this new phenomenon “mask mouth”.
In this article, we’re going to stay focused on solutions.
We’ll explore the physiology behind how wearing a mask can impact our oral health (so we understand the issue) as well as what we can do to mitigate these risks (so we know what we can do to help ourselves).
Regardless of where we all stand on the subject of masks, understanding the effect that wearing a mask can have on one’s oral health (and knowing what to do about it) helps us to continue to navigate our path to greater oral (and whole-body) health.
What is “mask mouth”?
Mask mouth is a new phenomenon for our global culture.
However, in years past, studies have examined the physiological impact that wearing masks long term had on humans.
One study found substantial markers that show that wearing a mask impacted the physiology of pregnant healthcare employees.
And another study found that these physiological challenges increase if one attempts to exercise while wearing a mask.
Due to the pandemic, the public at large is now faced with having to navigate the impact of prolonged habitual mask wearing, including mask mouth.
First, let’s take a look at what causes mask mouth. Then we’ll dive into what you can do to avoid the risks of mask wearing.
What causes mask mouth? A quick exploration of the physiology of mask mouth…
With our background of studying arts like tai chi and yoga, we are familiar with the importance of the breath. If you’ve studied breathwork or voice or even sports like scuba diving or free diving, some of this information may sound familiar to you, too.
Here is how we’ve come to understand what causes mask mouth.
As we wear a mask and breathe in and out, we wind up rebreathing a little of our exhaled breath that got trapped inside the mask.
Over time, this rebreathing results in a slight decrease in oxygen levels and an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the blood.
Increased blood CO2 levels unquestionably have a downstream impact on our physiology, including fatigue, brain fog, headaches, and flushing (to name just a few examples).
Perhaps you’ve noticed that you get just a little warmer while wearing a mask?
This increased experience of warmth isn’t just due to the mask providing insulation that traps in face heat. It’s primarily caused by the increased CO2 levels in your blood that create a slight flush of warmth.
The brain and body register this slight increase in blood CO2 levels as a hypoxic (low-oxygen) event. So, the body unconsciously seeks to increase oxygen intake via altered breathing techniques.
Just like when we’re exercising vigorously, one of the natural ways our bodies respond to a low-oxygen situation (like being out of breath) is by prompting us to breathe through our mouth rather than our nose. What’s important to bring to light here is that the body does all of this unconsciously as an attempt to decrease blood CO2 and increase oxygen levels.
This leads us back to our niche, helping you to care for your precious smile…
What happens when we breathe through the mouth over time?
Did you know that the #1 cause of tooth decay is dry mouth?
Yep, saliva levels play a huge role in whether or not the thug bugs implicated with tooth decay (and gum disease) gain the upper hand in our oral microbiome.
Decreased saliva levels allow these trouble-causing oral pathogens to build their numbers.
Well, unconsciously breathing through the mouth due to slightly elevated blood CO2 levels (that the body perceives as a low-oxygen event) is a sure way to dry out our mouth.
It’s one thing to catch our breath after vigorous exercise by breathing through the mouth for a few minutes. However, when the low-oxygen event is chronic (like what’s created by rebreathing through a mask over time), this puts a small, steady pressure on the physiology, which can lead the body to initiate unconscious corrective mechanisms.
Mouth breathing is a major mechanism that the body uses to increase the amount of oxygen we can intake.
Habitual mouth breathing also invites a host of other system-wide breakdowns, including bad breath and even teeth becoming misaligned over time (because it prevents our tongue from being in the proper position against the roof of the mouth to help support the alignment of our teeth).
We explore many of these problems attributed to mouth breathing in our video tutorial, How to Straighten Your Teeth Without Braces.
So, here’s the issue summary as we see it…
- Wearing a mask for long periods of time can lead to increased levels of CO2 in the blood, which can lead to unintentional mouth breathing (to compensate for this low-oxygen event).
- Mouth breathing leads to decreased saliva and dry mouth.
- Dry mouth allows thug bugs to proliferate and gain the upper hand in the oral microbiome.
- If the above steps are habitual, then this shift in the oral microbiome causes an increased tendency for both tooth decay and gum disease.
With that information in place, it makes sense that news outlets have been reporting that dentists are now finding gum inflammation and cavities in many patients who have never had these issues before.
So if we have to wear masks right now due to the pandemic, what can we do to help ourselves?
What can we do to mitigate the risks of mask mouth?
Thankfully there are several actions we can take to help navigate this challenging situation.
1.Wear a mask only when you feel it is really necessary.
Simply put, seek to limit the amount of time you are rebreathing through a mask. Why risk causing the physiological down regulation for longer than you have to?
For example, the next time you’re on the road, take notice of how many people you see driving in cars by themselves while wearing a mask. When you’re in the car alone, that’s a good opportunity to give your body a break by lowering your mask and breathing freely (through your nose, of course!). Plus, since you’re ‘operating heavy machinery’, it makes sense to make sure you aren’t inducing a state of brain fog or fatigue.
2. Be conscious of your breathing.
If you need to wear a mask for longer periods of time, tune into your breathing. By bringing conscious awareness to your breathing on a regular basis, you can mitigate the creeping fatigue and brain fog that can result from a long-term, low-oxygen environment.
While in a mask-heavy zone, try setting a timer for every 15-30 minutes. This way, your little timer can go off and remind you to turn your attention to taking 5 slow, deep breaths.
3. Learn to keep your tongue in the ‘home’ position and to breathe through your nose all the time (even when you’re not wearing a mask).
This gem is a big one for us.
This technique has SO much benefit for our entire being. Limiting to just the scope of this article, learning to keep your tongue in the ‘home’ position helps to maintain existing saliva levels and it can even help to naturally increase our saliva production. (For more information on why saliva is so important, be sure to check out our article, “Is the key to greater oral health already in your mouth?”.)
Also, if we train our tongues to rest in the place where they’re meant to hang out (the roof of the mouth), we will naturally breathe more fully, which addresses some of the negative consequences from mask wearing.
Here’s an article and video tutorial that explain how to find the ‘home position’ for your tongue. It’s worth taking a few minutes to learn this technique. In fact, this is one of the most precious postural principles of longevity arts around the world. You can watch our free interview with Dr Mike Mew, the expert that the viral internet term ‘mewing’ is named after regarding this important structural principle.
4. Maintain a good oral hygiene routine.
Some people start slacking on their oral hygiene when they know they’re going to be wearing a mask. After all, who’s going to smell your breath?
While it might be tempting to save time by skipping some brushing sessions, this can really be detrimental to our long-term oral health. (Also, remember that whether it’s fresh or stinky, you will be the one who is stuck smelling your breath in that mask! 🙂 )
In all seriousness, it’s important to maintain diligence with our healthy oral hygiene habits, including conscious brushing, flossing, and tongue cleaning daily.
If you’re looking to upgrade your oral hygiene routine, our Healthy Teeth & Gums Starter Kit contains all of the tools you need to make massive positive changes in your oral health. Here’s just one of the thousands of testimonials we’ve received from our customers:
“I have been a happy loyal customer for a few years now. What I love most is my dental appointments are extremely short!! There is very little scraping, no cavities, no problems of any kind. My dental hygienist is so thrilled when she sees me. She praises me and talks about how she is always so surprised to see such a clean mouth consistently!
Thank you so much!” -Monica R from Tennessee
We hope this article provided some useful insights to help you on your path to greater oral (and whole-body) health.
If you know someone who could benefit from this information, please share it with them.
And, if you have any other tips for helping to prevent or address mask mouth, please share them in the comments below so we can all learn from each other.
Helpful, related resources:
How to Straighten Your Teeth Without Braces [video tutorial version]
How to Straighten Your Teeth Without Braces [article version]
Is the key to greater oral health already in your mouth? [article]
How To Brush Your Teeth To Reduce Gum Disease [article]
How to floss and NOT damage your gums [video tutorial]
Why cleaning the tongue is the most underrated oral hygiene habit [article]
Healthy Teeth & Gums Starter Kit [product solution]
Impact of wearing masks on pregnant healthcare workers
Physiological impacts of exercising while wearing a mask
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