In a large international survey on the topic of male beauty, researchers found that the most important factor in making a man attractive to a woman is good hygiene. A great smile was number three, with confidence taking second place. Whether or not you're in the market for a girlfriend, there's no question that a little additional attention to our smiles, including our oral hygiene, can pay off big.

Bad Breath

Let's start with the elephant in the room: bad breath. It's usually caused by poor oral care habits, smoking, or a dry mouth. Hundreds of medications cause dry mouth, or xerostomia, as a side effect. The worst offenders are medicines used to treat allergies, high blood pressure, depression, and pain. Stay hydrated, floss daily, brush your teeth twice a day, and brush your tongue. If you wear dentures or other mouth appliances, clean them daily. Use an alcohol-free mouthwash and artificial saliva or a dry-mouth spray or gel. If your breath suddenly takes on an unpleasant or unusual odor, it may be a sign of a serious disorder, such as diabetes or a bowel obstruction, and you should seek medical attention immediately. Chronic dry mouth that is unrelated to medication use should also be investigated, since it may indicate an autoimmune condition or other disorder.

Healthy Gums

Proper brushing and flossing will keep your gums healthy. Periodontal (gum) disease makes gums red and puffy and causes them to recede and bleed spontaneously or with light brushing. Regular visits to your dentist or dental hygienist will keep cavities in check and prevent stains from building up.

Whitening Teeth

Many over-the-counter toothpastes, mouth rinses, and chewing gums claim to have a "whitening" effect, and while proper dental hygiene using toothpaste and mouth rinse will help keep your teeth white, these products are not really useful for cosmetic purposes. A peroxide bleaching agent is necessary to lighten the yellowish dentin, which is visible beneath the tooth enamel. Home bleaching agents, such as paint-on whiteners and strips applied directly to the teeth, are effective and relatively cheap. Look for one with at least 6% of the bleaching agent. People who have isolated stains (for example, a single discolored tooth), dark stains, crowns, dental implants, or other restorations should consult a dentist to discuss their alternatives. Dentists can prescribe bleaching kits to be used at home, or they can bleach the teeth in the office, using a safe laser light to oxidize the peroxide in about an hour.

Concerns linger about whether the bleaching process is safe for the teeth and whether the bleaching agent might be toxic if ingested. While both home and prescription products can be considered safe at this time, you should not have a bleaching procedure during pregnancy. You should also avoid whitening your teeth if your teeth are sensitive to hot or cold.

Straightening Teeth

Of course, a range of other cosmetic improvements is available. Some adults are candidates for Invisalign, a system in which a customized series of transparent trays, or "aligners," is used to straighten the teeth. People with bite problems or more complex orthodontic issues may need traditional braces. Brackets made of tooth-colored ceramic or polycarbonate are less noticeable than stainless steel brackets, and sometimes the brackets can be mounted on the back surface of the teeth.

Fixing Imperfections

A missing, chipped, or stained tooth can be replaced with a crown or dental implant, an artificial tooth permanently anchored into the bone of the jaw. Porcelain veneers are pricey but can transform a person's smile in just a couple of visits to the dentist. See a cosmetic dentist to discuss your options, but keep in mind that the "perfect" smile is often one with a little character.