Did you know that Listerine was once marketed as a surgical antiseptic and powerful floor cleaner? What you don’t know about mouthwash might surprise you. Especially when it comes to your dental health.
Keep reading to learn more about the history of mouthwash, my thoughts on whether or not mouthwash is bad for you, and alternatives to commercial mouthwashes.
A Brief History of Mouthwash
Believe it or not, people having been using mouthwash for thousands of years. Evidence shows that mouthwashes were used as far back as 2700 BC in China. In that era, a saltwater rinse was used as a treatment of gum disease.
In ancient Greek and Roman times, upper class citizens used mouth rinses to clean their teeth. Hippocrates (namesake of the Hippocratic Oath), recommended a mix of salt, vinegar, and alum. Early Native Americans used plants to make mouthwash to soothe sore throats, and calm teething babies.
In the 1600’s, a scientist experimented with an alcoholic mouthwash. He found that while alcohol can kill living organisms (like bacteria in dental plaque), brief contact by swishing an alcoholic solution in the mouth didn’t produce good results.
For a few hundred years, between the 1600’s and the early 1900’s, there wasn’t a lot of progress in the development of commercial mouthwashes. A variety of folk remedies and homemade solutions were used, but a market for mouthwash didn’t really exist.
So how did we get to where we are today, with entire shelves of mouthwash for sale at the drug store? It’s actually an example of a company creating the market for their products– think DeBeers inventing the tradition of diamond engagement rings.
Listerine was created in the 1870’s and was originally used as an antiseptic to reduce infections after surgery. It was also sold as a floor cleaner!
It wasn’t until the 1920’s that sales took off. A series of ads promoted Listerine as a cure for chronic halitosis (bad breath). Before the ad campaign, nobody really worried about how their breath smelled. But something about the ads resonated with people and Listerine’s sales increased by nearly 8000% (not a typo!) in under 10 years.
That brings us up to today, where drugstore shelves are packed with an incredible variety of mouthwashes, each with a different gimmick and advertised purpose.
The Downsides of Fresh Breath
Swishing a minty mouthwash may be refreshing, make your mouth feel cleaner, and remove lingering odors from your breath. But there are downsides that outweigh these advantages.
Mouthwash Isn’t a Substitute for Brushing & Flossing
One of the biggest dangers of using mouthwash regularly is that it can make you feel like your mouth is clean when it isn’t. We all know from experience that if you rinse your car with a strong hose spray, it won’t be effective at removing all of the dirt and grime that is attached. A truly clean and healthy mouth requires regular brushing and flossing, just like your car requires thorough scrubbing to get clean! If you’re using mouthwash as a substitute for good oral hygiene, you’re putting yourself at serious risk for gingivitis, cavities and other dental issues.
Mouthwash Doesn’t Discriminate
Your mouth is teeming with bacteria. It’s true. And it’s a good thing. There are more bacteria in your mouth than there are people on Earth. And a huge number of them actually benefit you by protecting against the more dangerous bacteria.
When you used an antibacterial mouthwash, it kills all kinds of bacteria, even the good ones! This can be the opportunity that the hazardous bacteria need to take over and start an infection. This is known as a “rebound effect.”
Another side effect of bacteria loss is reduced production of nitrites (which help your blood vessels to expand and contract efficiently). A Swedish study linked lower nitrite production from antibacterial mouthwash to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Photo: Umberto Salvagnin on Flickr
The Dangerous Cycle of Alcohol-Based Mouthwash
If you suffer from dry mouth or ulcers in your mouth, using an alcohol-based mouthwash can make these problems worse. These types of mouthwash actually dry out the tissue in the mouth as they evaporate, causing more dry mouth and irritating sores in your mouth.
You may also find that soda, red wine, coffee and tea stain your teeth more easily if you use an alcohol mouthwash. This is because your teeth and gums are losing their protective shield that’s being washed away by the mouthwash.
This loss of protective mucous and saliva can actually lead to an especially vicious cycle where your teeth build up plaque more easily, decay faster and cause bad breath, leading you to use more mouthwash, which just makes the problem worse.
The Dangers in Over the Counter Commercial Mouthwashes
Beyond the issues I’ve already discussed, there are some fundamental problems with the over the counter commercial mouthwashes that you can buy in the drugstore, like Listerine and Scope. In order to make them shelf stable, manufacturers add acidic stabilizing agents. These are absolutely terrible for your teeth. The acid will actually eat away at your tooth enamel, weakening your teeth and making them more susceptible to decay..
Then there are the artificial food dyes that are used in almost all over the counter mouthwashes. Cool Mint Listerine, to give one example, contains the dye Green 3, which has been linked to bladder cancer. Original Scope contains Yellow 5, made from a derivative of coal tar, and Blue 1, which has been connected to cancer in some animal tests.
Is Any Mouthwash Recommended?
You should know that there are mouthrinses that may be prescribed by a dentist if you have periodontal surgery. You should follow your dentist’s instructions if you’re prescribed one of these mouthwashes.
There are also therapeutic mouthwashes that can reduce plaque or that may include fluoride for cavity protection. Your dentist can tell you if one of these mouthwashes is right for you.
However, in my professional opinion, regular brushing and flossing, using proper technique will keep your mouth clean. That said, I should tell you that there are several other mouthrinses that I recommend for occasional use:
Gentle Salt Rinses
If you have a sore throat or cold sore in your mouth, you can get temporary relief by using a gentle salt water rinse. This is something you can mix up yourself. Just stir table salt into warm (not hot!) water and swish it around the affected area.
Remember, that if your sore throat doesn’t go away on its own, or your cold sores are particularly painful, make sure you talk to your doctor or dentist for other treatment options.
Photo: Amanda Downing on Flickr
Have you heard of oil pulling? It’s an ayurvedic healing tradition that’s been around for thousands of years. Oil pulling is a natural technique than can help detoxify the body. It’s simple, too! Swirl a tablespoon of coconut, olive or sesame oil around your mouth for anywhere from 5-20 minutes. When you’re finished, spit it out, rinse your mouth, and continue with your brushing and flossing routine.
You’ll probably find it a relaxing experience in addition to its other benefits, that can include whiter teeth, increased energy, and even fewer headaches and clearer skin!
DIY pH Balancing Rinses
Think of your mouth like a balancing act. The good bacteria balance out the bad bacteria, for example. Your mouth’s pH is like that, too. Acidic liquids, like soda and commercial mouthwashes, can throw this balance out of whack and make your mouth too acidic. To re-balance your mouth’s pH, you can use a simple solution of baking soda and water. Here’s a recipe that includes peppermint oil for flavor.
Photo: Jessica Mullen on Flickr
There are actually some great pH balancing rinses on the market, including the CTx3 rinse from CariFree. The best part about CariFree’s rinses is that they include no dangerous additives or ingredients and some of their rinses have fluoride to help prevent cavities, too!
Check out their simple recipe: xylitol, an all-natural plant-based sugar-free sweetener, fluoride for remineralization and cavity prevention, and a bicarbonate-based pH neutralizing agent. They’re really great!
My Final Word on Mouthwash
Avoid Scope, Listerine and the other commercial mouthwashes. They’re acidic, contain potentially cancer-causing chemicals, and are just plain bad for you.
Simpler, gentler, homemade rinses and those from CariFree, however, can soothe your mouth and balance your pH, among other benefits. CariFree’s rinses, for example, can help prevent cavities, too! For improved gum health, you might also consider adding oil pulling to your home dental care routine. It can be an enjoyable, natural method of detoxifying your body.
And don’t forget to brush and floss regularly!
Do you have questions about mouthwash? Ask me at your next dental cleaning & exam appointment.
Dr. Blodgett completed his pre-doctoral sciences at Portland State University and graduated from the Oregon Health Science University School of Dentistry in 1999. As a modern pioneer in progressive dental care, Dr. Blodgett has become a leader in minimally-invasive dentistry, dental lasers, computerized dental technology, and holistic care. He is widely recognized for the innovative care he provides and is dedicated to helping his patients optimize their whole body health.