If you’ve ever seen a mouthwash ad, you might think one swig of the stuff will leave you with sparkling teeth, minty fresh breath, and people lining up to kiss you. Perhaps you’ve heard that mouthwash is “as easy as rinsing, as effective as flossing,” or “kills germs that cause bad breath,” or that “there’s no deeper clean than Listerine.”
But is any of this true, or are they simply catchphrases with no factual basis?
What Mouthwash Can Do
It’s true that mouthwash has some benefits for your oral health. For example, many mouthwashes contain fluoride, which has been repeatedly proven to be effective at reducing dental decay. That means that using a fluoride rinse (or a fluoride toothpaste) can help prevent cavities.
Most mouthwashes also contain antibacterial agents, such as alcohol or chlorhexidine. Since periodontitis, more commonly known as gum disease, is caused by bacterial infection, using an antibacterial rinse may help reduce your risk of periodontitis (although it should not be used as a treatment for gum disease.)
And of course, there’s no denying that a quick rinse with mouthwash can make your breath smell fresh. If you’ve just had a garlicky lunch and need to get back to work, mouthwash can protect you from embarrassment (and your coworkers from that garlic breath!)
The Downsides of Mouthwash
Of course, like most things, mouthwash isn’t everything that advertising makes it out to be. There are downsides to using mouthwash that Listerine and Colgate don’t want you to know about.
For instance, that fresh breath that comes from mouthwash is a temporary mask. While there’s nothing wrong with using mouthwash occasionally to temporarily freshen breath, it’s only concealing the smell of your breath, not treating it. You wouldn’t use perfume as a daily replacement for showering — using mouthwash as a replacement for good oral hygiene is similarly ineffective.
Remember chlorhexidine, the antibacterial agent? While it is effective at fighting bacteria, it can also cause discoloration to the teeth when it interacts with residue from certain foods, like red wine or coffee. If you think that makes alcohol a preferable antibacterial, think again — the presence of alcohol in mouthwashes can actually cause damage to the sensitive mucus membranes in your mouth.
And while most people know not to swallow mouthwash, doing so accidentally can be dangerous. Most mouthwashes contain ingredients that can be poisonous if ingested in quantity. This is one reason that it’s important to keep mouthwash out of the hands of children who may not know how it is intended to be used.
In the end, mouthwash has some benefits and some downsides, which can make it difficult to know if it’s a good addition to your oral health routine. The safest way to decide whether or not it should be incorporated into your daily habits is to speak with your dentist at your next regular checkup. They’ll know whether or not mouthwash is a good choice for your specific oral health situation, and can recommend the right type of mouthwash for you.