Mouthwash: Myths and Misconceptions

Woman shopping for mouthwash
There are good reasons to use mouthwash, but there is also a lot of misinformation out there!

Have you ever noticed what a common sight it is to see someone standing in the oral care aisle at the drug store just staring at the rows upon rows of mouthwash?  The sheer number of choices we have in a single store can be mind-boggling.  And that doesn’t even take into account the various brands and formulations sold online.

As if the choice isn’t difficult enough, we add on top of the large number of options several prevalent myths regarding what mouthwash can and cannot do.  This article will deconstruct those myths and help you choose the right mouthwash for your specific needs.

Mouthwash Myths

The following are statements we hear from patients that are NOT true.  It’s important to understand the true purpose of mouthwash and its various ingredients and use it correctly for your unique dental needs.

Myth #1: Mouthwash can substitute for brushing and flossing.

Absolutely not!

Mouthwash may loosen plaque, but it does not remove it from the teeth.  There are some types of mouthwash that contain ingredients to fight the bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease, but they do not physically remove plaque from the teeth.  In dentistry, we call it mechanical removal because some type of instrument (in your case, toothbrush bristles and floss) has to physically touch the plaque to remove it from teeth.

Myth #2: If it burns, it’s working!

Woman using mouthwash in mirror
A harsh, stinging, burning sensation does NOT mean your mouthwash is working.

Many people think the harsh, stinging, burning sensation of some popular mouthwashes is actually a good thing.  We disagree.

Mouthwash should not hurt.  Many people suffer from issues with dry mouth or soft tissue disorders that can make then more sensitive to the harsh chemicals (mainly the essential oils thymol, menthol, and eucalyptol) in many mouthwashes.

Myth #3: All mouthwash is equal.

They are actually quite different.  There are mouthrinses aimed at very different areas of oral health.  Some focus on fighting cavities, while others work to break down the smelly sulfur compounds of bad breath.  This is why using any ol’ mouthwash is not the best tactic.  Read the rest of this article to find out which mouthwash would be best for your specific needs.

Myth #4: Whitening mouthwash will whiten your teeth.

We hate to break it to you, but swishing a mouthwash (even one with the “right” ingredient) will not whiten your teeth.  Most “whitening” mouthwashes contain hydrogen peroxide as an active ingredient.  This peroxide will not harm you and actually does provide some minor anti-inflammatory action.  We often recommend it when someone is fighting persistent gingivitis, with red, puffy, bleeding gums.  It has its uses.  It’s just that whitening isn’t one of them.

Myth #5: Mouthwash will cure your bad breath.

Mouthwash can fight your bad breath, but it’s not likely to be a complete cure.  Unfortunately, we see people using harsh chemical mouthwashes as a “quick fix” right before a date or an interview.  These strong scents and flavorings only serve to mask the underlying odor.  Curing bad breath will require consistent dental care, treatment of any dental disease, and possibly even medical treatment if the source is not in your mouth.

What’s Your Goal?

Is your goal to have a healthy mouth?  To fight cavities?  To moisturize a dry mouth?  If you are not sure what your goal is, the best thing to do is discuss it with your dentist.  Your dentist knows in what specific areas of risk you fall.

As we noted above, if your goal is teeth whitening, skip the mouthwash, and talk to your dentist about professional teeth whitening.  If you have no specific problems, and your goal is just to maintain a healthy mouth, then you are safe to use a generic, alcohol-free mouthwash.

Fight Cavities

If you have a high risk for getting new cavities, you should use a mouthwash containing fluoride.  Fluoride strengthens enamel and fights the attacks of acid-producing bacteria.  When using a fluoride mouthrinse, it is most effective when you use it last.  Brush and floss your teeth first.  Then rinse with the fluoride mouthwash for at least one minute.  After spitting the mouthwash out, do not rinse your mouth with water.  Instead, go straight to bed so that the fluoride stays on your teeth while you sleep.

Fight Gum Disease

When it comes to fighting gum disease, you should use a mouthwash that claims to be antiseptic.  This means it is fighting and possibly killing bacteria.  If you have tenderness in the gums, a whitening mouthwash can reduce the inflammation and make brushing and flossing more comfortable.  Many dentists prescribe a specific antibiotic rinse for the treatment of gum disease.  It is important to follow the instructions closely and only use for the prescribed amount of time.  Using prescription mouthwash, like Chlorhexidine, for too long can lead to unpleasant side effects and actually worsen the gum disease.

Manage Dry Mouth

Child with severe dry mouth
Patients with dry mouth must ONLY EVER using mouthwash without alcohol.

Patients with dry mouth must, repeat MUST, use only alcohol-free mouthwash.  Alcohol is a drying agent, and it will leave the inside of the mouth feeling worse than before the rinse.  Alcohol does not function to fight cavities or gum disease; it is simply the solvent or “carrier” liquid for the other active ingredients.  If your mouth is severely dry, we recommend the Biotene brand line of oral care products including their mouthwash.  It is mild, with no irritating harsh chemicals, and lubricating for dry tissues.

Soothe Painful Ulcers and Sores

When you have canker sores or fever blisters, a mouthwash can aggravate or alleviate.  Colgate brand makes a wonderful mouthwash that soothes painful mouth sores called Peroxyl.  It is available over-the-counter and relieves the pain of aphthous ulcers and other mouth sores.  It is even good for injuries like bitten lips or tongue.

More Questions about Mouthwash?

Call today to schedule a consultation.  As we noted earlier, the most important thing is using the correct mouthwash for your specific needs and goals.  If you are not sure what those are, let us help you by first assessing your areas of risk and then recommending the best mouthwash to fight those risk factors.