Think you know everything there is to know about mouthwash? Here are a few of the more common mouthwash myths that need dispelling:
Mouthwash cures bad breath. Some mouthwashes do, but not all. Some can actually encourage bad breath (due to the fact that they dry out your mouth). And remember, mouthwash is a temporary fix, not a long-term solution, for the underlying cause of your bad breath.
Mouthwashes are all the same. Not at all, as you'll see in the next section, there are different mouthwashes for different purposes (teeth whitening, anti-cavities, desensitizing, etc.).
Mouthwash is good for you. Many mouthwashes will improve your oral health, but some can do more harm than good. For example, alcohol-based mouthwashes can dry out your mouth, increasing bad breath or causing sensitivity in the roots of your teeth.
Mouthwash can replace a toothbrush. Heck no! Mouthwash will rinse your mouth, but you need a toothbrush for proper scrubbing and deep cleaning. Only a toothbrush and dental floss will effectively get rid of the food particles trapped between your teeth.
As you can see, there's a lot about mouthwash that is misunderstood. Below, we're going to teach you everything you need to know about the pros and cons of mouthwash, how to use it, and what to watch out for.
Types of Mouthwash
Mouthwash isn't a "one size fits all" product. There are a number of different types of mouthwash you can buy:
- Anti-Plaque – This mouthwash contains ingredients like Thymol, Triclosan, Cetylpyridinium Chloride, and Chlorhexidine, all of which help to reduce the accumulation of plaque on your teeth. By reducing plaque, you reduce your risk of gingivitis.
- Cosmetic – This mouthwash is used to mask bad smells, leaving your mouth smelling fresh and clean. However, it's really only a short-term solution if you need fresh breath immediately. It doesn't deal with the bacteria or food particles causing the bad breath.
- Whitening – This mouthwash is used to whiten your teeth. It contains a bleaching agent, such as hydrogen peroxide, that will eliminate stains and whiten your teeth with regular use.
- Fluoride Rinse – This mouthwash is used to reduce your risk of tooth decay. It contains roughly .05% sodium fluoride, which can help to fight off cavities and oral bacteria.
- Desensitizing – This mouthwash is intended to reduce tooth sensitivity. It contains arginine, which can help to reduce dentinal tubules on the more sensitive parts of your teeth.
Before you use any mouthwash, consult your dentist to find out if they recommend or advise against it. As you'll see below, mouthwash may do more harm than good…
Reasons to Use Mouthwash
Obviously we're going to start with the "pros" of using mouthwash. Here are all the things that make it a good idea to add mouthwash to your daily grooming habits:
Fresh Breath – The minty freshness of the mouthwash is definitely a good thing. If you eat strong smelling foods (spices, garlic, etc.) or drink a lot of coffee, tea, or alcohol, rinsing your mouth out with mouthwash can mask the bad odors and leave your breath smelling pleasant.
Fight Gum Disease – Most mouthwashes are made with ingredients (like fluoride) that will kill off bacteria and/or prevent the build-up of plaque. This will reduce the risk of gingivitis, periodontitis, and other gum diseases.
Reduce Cavity Risk – Fluoride is added to your mouthwashes in order to strengthen the enamel covering your teeth. Stronger enamel is resistant to bacteria, reducing your cavity risk.
Treat Sores, Ulcers, and Canker Sores – Mouthwashes can help to detoxify the flesh around mouth sores and ulcers, reducing the irritating bacteria that are causing or worsening the sore.
Better Oral Health During Pregnancy – Pregnant women are at a higher risk of gingivitis due to hormonal changes. Mouthwash can help to reduce the bacterial build-up that leads to gum infections and gum disease, improving oral health during pregnancy.
Dangers of Mouthwash
Despite the above-listed "pros" of using mouthwash, it turns out there are a few more "cons" than you might expect.
Oral Irritation – Alcohol-based mouthwashes can be very irritating, especially to canker sores and ulcers in your mouth. The irritation can actually make the sores and ulcers worse!
Chemical Interactions – The chemicals in the mouthwash may interact negatively with the chemicals in your toothpaste. This could lead to oral irritation, or the chemicals may simply cancel each other out.
Ineffective – The truth is that mouthwash just "masks" the bad breath, but it doesn't deal with the bacteria, food particles, and infections that cause it. If you have chronic bad breath, covering the smell with mouthwash will do nothing to help you deal with the root cause. People who use mouthwash instead of brushing their teeth are opting for an ineffective teeth-cleaning method that will not get rid of bacteria and food particles.
Potential Link to Oral Cancer – Since the 1970s, there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not mouthwash—both fluoride- and alcohol-based mouthwashes—can lead to an increased risk of oral cancer. A 2012 meta-analysis of 18 epidemiological studies found "no statistically significant associations between mouthwash use and risk of oral cancer, nor any significant trend in risk with increasing daily use; and no association between use of mouthwash containing alcohol and oral cancer risk." However, a 2014 study found that people with poor oral health had the highest risk of oral cancers. Considering the ineffectiveness of mouthwash, using it instead of brushing your teeth could raise your cancer risk.
Sensitive Teeth – Alcohol-based mouthwashes can dissolve the mucus layer protecting your teeth, leaving them vulnerable and causing increased sensitivity.
Bacterial Disruption – The beneficial bacteria living in your mouth may be disrupted by the chemicals in antibacterial mouthwash. This disruption can cause harmful bacteria to flourish and alter your oral pH balance. Worse, it may lead to oral thrush, bad breath, and cavities.
Dries Out Your Mouth – The alcohol in many mouthwashes (including Listerine) will dry out your mouth, eliminating the saliva that is protecting your mouth from bacteria. You will very likely end up with worse breath thanks to your mouthwash.
Chemicals in Mouthwash
The main threat to your oral health comes from two sources: the alcohol and chemicals in your mouthwash.
Alcohol – When you drink alcohol, have you ever noticed that it dries out your mouth? Alcohol is a desiccant, a drying agent. It dries up the protective coating of saliva, leaving your teeth, gums, tongue, and the inside of your mouth unprotected.
What happens when the bacteria in your mouth (mostly unaffected by the alcohol) starts to feed on the food particles trapped between your teeth (not effectively removed by mouthwash)? The bacteria multiply and begin to eat away at your teeth and gums. This can lead to bad breath and a higher risk of infection.
The drying effect of alcohol-based mouthwashes makes them a bad choice for good oral health. Unless your dentist specifically prescribes an alcohol-based mouthwash, try to find one made WITHOUT alcohol.
Chemicals – Do you have any idea just how many chemicals there are in your mouthwash? What's more, do you have any idea what those chemicals do?
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is one of the most commonly used chemicals, and it can have the same drying effect as alcohol. It can also cause microscopic damage to oral tissue, leading to an increased risk of sores and ulcers.
- Clorhexidine kills off the good bacteria in your mouth, and it may increase your risk of high blood pressure.
- Benzalkonium Chloride can irritate the mucus membranes inside your mouth, potentially leading to swelling of the tongue, lips, and mouth. It may also cause allergic reactions, including breathing difficulties.
- Hexetidine (also known as oraldene) can have some pretty nasty side effects as well, such as: unstable heartbeat, allergic reactions, failure of certain parts of the brain, and a higher risk of cancer.
- Methyl Salicylate, if consumed in excess, can lead to low blood pressure, vomiting, convulsions, and kidney failure. It's one reason you should NEVER swallow mouthwash!
- Methylparaben has the potential to increase the risk of breast cancer, as it can accelerate the growth of tumor cells.
These chemicals are all found in your mouthwash!
Let's be clear: most mouthwashes are FDA-approved, which means they are manufactured according to the safety standards passed by the U.S. Government. Most of the chemicals in your mouthwash are used in very small doses, so there isn't a massive health risk.
However, it's important that you understand that risk does exist. Your exposure to these chemicals can lead to negative effects. If you're trying to reduce chemical exposure, you'd do well to find alternatives to the commercially sold mouthwashes.
Alternatives to Mouthwash
Want to rinse your mouth and teeth WITHOUT exposing yourself to chemicals and alcohol? Try these natural alternatives:
- Salt – Drop a teaspoon of salt in ¼ glass of warm water, and swish it around in your mouth. The sodium will be an effective bacteria-killer!
- Cinnamon and Honey – Add half a tablespoon of cinnamon and 1½ teaspoons of organic honey to a cup of warm water, along with the juice of two lemons. Use this as a mouthwash, and the antibacterial properties of the lemon, honey, and cinnamon will protect your mouth and teeth.
- Baking Soda – Sodium bicarbonate is an excellent odor-killer and anti-bacterial agent. Mix a teaspoon of baking soda with ¼ cup of water and use it as a mouthwash.
- Coconut Oil – Oil pulling is an Ayurvedic technique intended to kill off bacteria, reduce odors, and improve oral health. The Vitamin E in the oil works as an antioxidant, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal agent.
- Apple Cider Vinegar – The astringent properties of apple cider vinegar will do wonders to kill off odor-causing bacteria. Mix ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar with ¾ cups of warm water, and use it as a mouthwash.
- Peppermint Oil – Peppermint oil contains strong antibacterial properties, and it can help to freshen up your breath. Add a few drops of peppermint oil to half a cup of warm water. Mix well, swish around in your mouth, and spit. You'll find your mouth is much healthier and your breath much more pleasant.
- Lemon Juice – Lemon juice contains potent antibacterial and astringent properties. Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon into ½ cup of warm water and use it as a natural, chemical-free mouthwash.
Mouthwash for Kids
According to the National Institutes for Health, up to 73% of children under the age of 11 suffer from gum disease, while 42% of these same children have already experienced tooth decay and cavities.
Oral hygiene is SO important for your children, which is why it's vital that you teach them to brush their teeth at a young age.
But what about mouthwash? Should they be using it or not?
For the sake of safety, make sure your children are using alcohol-free mouthwash. This will reduce the risk of oral health problems.
For children under the age of six, it's safer to avoid any mouthwashes that contain fluoride. Small quantities of fluoride (in the water and mouthwash) can help to protect their teeth, but too much can cause discoloration of teeth enamel (fluorosis).
Always supervise your children when they are rinsing using mouthwash. Teach them to spit it out and swallow as little as possible. Plus, supervising them will help them learn to brush, floss, and rinse their teeth regularly, building the oral health habits they need at a young age.
And always store the mouthwash OUT OF REACH of your children so they don't get into it and/or drink it when you aren't watching.