Why Mint Feels Cold & Other Flavor Mysteries

Mouthwash & toothbrush & mint

There’s no doubt that when it comes to dental products, mint is the dominant flavor choice. Finding a toothpaste or mouthwash that isn’t spearmint, peppermint, or some made-up version of mint (like arctic blast) is a challenge. The fact is, these products don’t actually need this flavoring to do their work. Which may leave you wondering: Why does mint flavor make your mouth feel cool and fresh, as if your toothpaste was extra effective?

It comes down to a plant’s ability to trick your brain through chemistry. All varieties of mint plant produce a chemical called menthol. This is the substance that gives mint its distinctive flavor. Your body senses cold when a protein called TRPM8 is activated in your nerve cells, which then relay a current signal to your brain that it interprets as a cold sensation. Menthol has the unique ability to activate TRPM8, tricking your nerves into thinking they’re feeling cold when they’re actually not.

Hot peppers make you feel the sensation of heat pretty much the same way. Most hot or spicy foods contain a chemical called capsaicin. This chemical tricks your brain into feeling hot by activating a different protein, called VR1. Because both menthol and capsaicin mess with your temperature sensitivity, they can make you feel numb. That’s why you’ll find them in topical painkillers from the drugstore.

There’s no doubt that mint can help alleviate bad breath, but it also makes you feel extra clean. So why do we associate being cold with healthy teeth? We may never know the scientific reason, but one thing we do know is that when your mouth is dry at warm you can practically feel the bacteria growing, covering your tongue, teeth and gums in muck. It makes sense then that the opposite sensation with signify health. Also, mint has the added benefit of stimulating the production of saliva, which helps wash teeth and remineralize your enamel. This is one reason chewing mint-flavored sugar-free gum can be good for your teeth.

And not to worry if you don’t like mint flavor. You can still take great care of your dental health using toothpastes in other flavors such as cinnamon or bubble gum.