To Mouthwash or Not to Mouthwash?
Mouthwash makers say the benefits of oral rinse go beyond just kissable breath — but some people worry that alcohol-containing rinses come with a number of health risks. Here’s what you should know.
Ahhh — who doesn’t love that minty kick that comes from a swig of mouthwash?
And your oral rinse could be doing more than just giving your breath a makeover, according to many mouthwash makers — it could be chockfull of health benefits, too.
Just check out the label on your mouthwash container, and you may find that it’s a plaque zapper, a teeth whitener, perhaps even a gum-disease fighter.
But are the claims true? Is mouthwash really good for your mouth? Turns out, the answer is yes and no.
4 Important Mouthwash Pros
- Cut down on cavities. “It is absolutely true that rinsing with a fluoride rinse can help reduce cavities,” says Nicholas Toscano, DDS, a diplomate of the American Board of Periodontology, co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Implant and Advanced Clinical Dentistry. “There are countless studies on the benefits of fluoride in reducing demineralization and cavitations of the teeth.”
- Fight gum disease. With periodontal disease (such as gingivitis), gums and tooth sockets can get inflamed or infected because of plaque from bacteria and food that lingers on teeth. An antibacterial mouthwash, like one with alcohol or chlorhexidine, may help prevent periodontal disease.
- Soothe canker sores. “Mouthwash can ease a canker sore by detoxing the area — reducing the amount of bacteria that can irritate the site,” says Dr. Toscano. In many cases, a simple saltwater rinse will do.
- Safeguard your pregnancy. Periodontal disease is actually a risk factor for giving birth to preterm, low-weight babies — the bacteria from a gum infection can get into a pregnant woman’s bloodstream and increase inflammatory markers, which in turn can stimulate contractions. And a recent study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (which received funding from Proctor and Gamble) found that moms-to-be who used mouthwash throughout their pregnancy were less likely to go into early labor.
Mouthwash clearly offers certain benefits — but it’s important to know that not all mouth rinses are the same. Saltwater rinses can be made at home with warm water and salt, whereas store-bought types contain a variety of ingredients ranging from fluoride (Act) to alcohol (Listerine) to chlorhexidine (Peridex).
3 Mouthwash Cons You Should Know
Mouthwash is by no means a cure-all. In fact, mouthwash gets bad marks because it:
- Irritates canker sores. If the alcohol content of your mouth rinse is too high, it may actually end up irritating the canker sore more than helping it.
- Masks bad breath. “Mouthwash can lead to fresher breath, but it may be short-lived,” says Toscano. “If a patient has poor oral hygiene and doesn’t brush effectively, there is no amount of mouthwash that can mask the effects of poor health. Just using mouthwash would be equivalent to not bathing and using cologne to mask the smell.”
- Has been linked to oral cancer. The debate over whether alcohol-containing mouthwashes are linked to oral cancer continues — it’s an issue that has been discussed since the 1970s with no definitive answers. One stumbling block has been the way the studies have been designed, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). As of now, the ADA has put its Seal of Acceptance on some mouth rinses containing alcohol after it extensively reviewed their effectiveness and safety.
Toscano says to keep this in mind: “Using a rinse is very different than drinking alcohol, and usually there is a synergistic effect with smoking. The ADA only puts its seal of approval on proven research and would not put people in harm’s way by having them use a product that would have such negative side effects.”
The Bottom Line on Your Oral Rinse
“Mouthwashes should not be used as a substitute for toothbrushing,” says John Ictech-Cassis, DDS, DMD, a clinical professor at Boston University’s School of Dental Medicine. Even when they can be helpful in lessening the risk of periodontal disease and cavities, they should always be used in conjunction with good hygiene habits.
Ultimately, what is right for your best friend may not be the best choice for you, so consider your personal situation. For people with periodontal disease, Toscano recommends Listerine because it reduces the bacteria that causes the disease. For those who are cavity-prone, he tends to recommend a high-fluoride rinse like Act. And he always emphasizes the importance of good dental hygiene.