Mouthwash possibly linked to oral cancers
Earlier this month, a group of dental researchers in Glasgow, Scotland reported a link between frequent use of alcohol-based mouthwash (3 times per day) and oral cancers, such as mouth, throat, tongue and vocal cords.
A similar study came out of Australia in 2009. The theory is that alcohol “increases the permeability of the mucosa” to carcinogens, such as nicotine or acetylaldehyde (a breakdown product of the alcohol).
But other analyses have found no such significant link.
Certainly smoking, chewing tobacco, drinking and poor oral health are all risk factors for developing oral cancers.
And I suspect anyone that smokes, chews tobacco and has poor oral hygiene habits is much more likely to over use mouthwash.
Which begs the question: Do healthy adults with good oral hygiene need to use mouthwash?
What do mouthwashes do?
Every time I walk down the dental care aisle at the drugstore, I am amazed at the number of mouthwashes available.
Mouthwashes make one or more of the following claims:
- Prevents cavities: These are the fluoride-based rinses available in a variety of colors and flavors. Very little fluoride clings to your teeth following a 60-second rinse, and is then quickly washed off by your saliva.
- Freshens breath: Most of these contain natural and artificial flavors (minty fresh!) to mask bad breath. Swishing can help remove food particles from between your teeth and temporarily sweeten your breath, but it does not take the place of proper tooth and gum care.
- Whitens teeth: These are basically hydrogen peroxide. The concentration is very low so that it won’t harm your gum tissue; however, it doesn’t have much of a bleaching effect, either.
- Kills germs that cause plaque and gingivitis: These are usually the alcohol-based products. Classic Listerine also contains menthol and eucalyptus oil. Killing germs helps bad breath, as well.
- Prevents tartar build up: Tartar is hardened plaque, the sticky stuff that develops on your teeth if you don’t brush regularly. If you control the plaque, you control the tartar.
The manufacturers would probably be thrilled if you bought more than one!
The alcohol-based products are those linked with oral cancers. Some of these mouthwashes have an alcohol content as high as 26%.
The alcohol also dries out your mouth, which causes more problems such as sensitive teeth, cavities and bad breath.
However, there are many mouthwashes that are alcohol-free, especially those marketed for kids.
Basic oral hygiene comes first
Keeping your mouth and teeth clean is important, but you really don’t need to spend extra money on mouthwash.
- Brush twice a day with an ADA-approved toothpaste that contains fluoride. Change your toothbrush or toothbrush head regularly. Related post: What’s in your toothpaste?
- Floss at least once a day.
- Drink more water throughout the day, especially after meals and snacks to help wash away or dilute the sugar that wants to stick to your teeth (plaque!).
- Snack on apples, carrots or celery. Hard foods such as these clean your teeth and help strengthen your gums.
- Don’t smoke or chew tobacco!
- See a dentist at least once a year. Tartar build up under your gum lines contributes to gum disease. A hygienist will scrape off this tartar.
If you have significant gum disease, a dentist might recommend an over-the-counter or prescription mouthwash to use for a short period of time.
An inexpensive, alcohol-free mouthwash for occasional use is fine (not three times a day!). But if you are trying to control bad breath, you might want to consider what you are eating. Most bad breath comes from the stomach, and is a result of poor digestion.
Related post: Home remedies for gas and bloating
Taking care of your teeth and gums is important to overall health (and oral cancer prevention), but doesn’t need to be expensive. Save money where you can.