A mouthwash is a flavoured liquid which is used as part of a dental hygiene routine. It is used to rinse out the mouth after brushing and flossing the teeth to further clean the teeth and protect them against tooth decay and gum disease.

Mouthwashes are also used for their breath freshening properties and are considered by many people to be an essential part of their dental hygiene routine.

What is a mouthwash comprised of?

All mouthwashes differ from each other to a certain extent but there are a range of ingredients which are common to all types. These include:

  • Flavouring - such as eucalyptol or menthol which gives a mouthwash its distinctive taste. Most mouthwashes are mint flavoured.
  • Preservative - this prolongs the life of the mouthwash and prevents the formation of bacteria and other microbes. An example of this is sodium benzoate.
  • Water - an essential component of a mouthwash which helps to liquefy all of the ingredients.
  • Sweeteners - these enhance the taste of a mouthwash. Examples of these include sodium saccharine and sucralose.
  • Colouring - this is added for aesthetic reasons, to improve the visual attractiveness of the mouthwash.
  • Fluoride - this chemical is often added to water filtration systems and toothpaste as a means of further protection against tooth decay. It also helps to strengthen the teeth.
  • Detergent - an essential part of the mix which helps with the removal of plaque and food debris from the teeth.
  • Calcium - this also helps to strengthen the teeth and so protect them from tooth decay. Included for the same reasons as fluoride.
  • Antiseptic - there are several types of antiseptic which all have anti-bacterial properties and are used to attack the build up of plaque on the teeth. Antiseptic mouthwashes are popular with people who have a mouth infection, bad breath or gum disease.

Examples of these include chlorhexidine gluconate and cetylpyridinium chloride.

  • Alcohol - this is considered an important part of a mouthwash as it has a strong anti-bacterial effect. It removes germs and bacteria from the mouth which are responsible for tooth decay and enhances the effects of similar ingredients.

Alcohol mouthwashes must not be used by children.

What types of mouthwash are there?

There are several options open to you as regards choosing a mouthwash. These are:

  • Antiseptic mouthwashes - these are designed to fight plaque and protect the teeth against tooth decay. They contain anti-bacterial ingredients which prevent further build up of plaque which contributes to tooth decay and gum disease. They also disguise bad breath.

Excessive use of this mouthwash can cause discolouration of the teeth.

  • Fluoride mouthwashes - these contain this important chemical that attacks acids in the mouth which cause tooth decay. It also adds extra protection to the teeth.
  • Cosmetic mouthwashes - these types of mouthwashes do not have the ability to fight plaque and are mainly used to mask bad breath. They ensure that the teeth look clean and healthy.
  • Natural mouthwashes - these usually contain organic or herbal ingredients and are alcohol-free.
  • Home-made mouthwashes - these are usually a combination of a teaspoon of salt in warm water and are used to treat a mouth infection or the after effects of a tooth extraction.

It is a case of finding the mouthwash which is best suited to your dental needs and taste.

Is there a link between the use of mouthwashes and cancer?

There have been reports in the media about a link between alcohol based mouthwashes and cancer. Findings from this research suggest that using a mouthwash can increase your risk of oral cancer.

However this research is inconclusive. Other factors may be involved, for example smoking, excess alcohol consumption and poor oral care. These are all risk factors for oral cancer.

Cancer Research UK and The British Dental Health Foundation argue that more research is needed to determine if there is a link or not between mouthwashes and oral cancer.

Is there a mouthwash for people with sensitive teeth?

If you suffer from 'dentine hypersensitivity' then choose a mouthwash which is less likely to irritate your teeth and gums. These include natural and alcohol free mouthwashes.

Natural mouthwashes contain herbal ingredients such as camomile and aloe vera which are known for their soothing qualities.

How important is a mouthwash as part of a dental hygiene routine?

Mouthwashes are not an essential part of an oral care routine and viewed by dentists as an 'optional extra'. They state that brushing and flossing the teeth is more than sufficient for keeping them clean and healthy.

A mouthwash is not necessary but they are popular with many people who enjoy their breath freshening qualities as well as the pleasant aftertaste.

It is more important to follow a daily dental routine which includes the following:

  • Brushing the teeth with a good, propriety brand of toothpaste. Fluoride toothpastes are a good choice.
  • Flossing the teeth afterwards.
  • Using a mouthwash to rinse away any plaque and food deposits which have become dislodged as a result of the above.
  • Limiting your intake of high fat, sugary foods.
  • Having a professional clean of your teeth, e.g. scale and polish.
  • Twice yearly visit to the dentist to monitor your dental health.

Does a tooth whitening mouthwash work?

There are several brands of teeth whitening mouthwash which claim to clean and lighten the teeth. These mouthwashes are white in colour and of a thicker consistency than the liquid based mouthwashes.

They tend to work best on tooth which have minimal staining. If your teeth have extensive areas of staining then consider professional teeth whitening instead.

Are there any side effects from using a mouthwash?

Mouthwashes are considered safe to use although children and those with drink problems should avoid the alcohol based variety.

They can cause irritation in people who suffer from digestive disorders such as acid reflux and heartburn which is due to high acidity levels. In this case it is better to choose a mouthwash which has a neutral PH factor rather than the acidic varieties.

If you are concerned about possible health risks of using a mouthwash then visit your dentist. He or she will be able to discuss this further with you and recommend an alternative if necessary.