I’m a Dentist, and This Is What I Want You to Know About Mouthwash

Photo: Stocksy / BonninStudio
As we all take stock of what we *need* versus what we need, even household items taken for granted as staples are bound to fall under increased scrutiny. Do we really need to hoard toilet paper, when bidets—a more sanitary option—exist for under $100? Is sparkling water really something I should be braving the grocery store, or asking delivery people to brave the grocery store, for under the circumstances, even if it helps me to drink 10x more per day? On and on the list goes... (my cats will kill me in my sleep if I stop stocking their treats, though).

Reevaluating the contents of my cart in this manner has me wondering where mouthwash falls in all of this; is it essential, or a luxury we can skip for now, especially since no one outside of the house is going to smell our breath anytime soon?

According to the pros, it depends. "There are two categories of mouthwashes: cosmetic and therapeutic," says Heather Kunen, DDS, MS, co-founder of Beam Street. "Cosmetic mouthwashes are meant to superficially correct bad breath and/or provide a pleasant taste in one’s mouth, whereas therapeutic mouthwashes have properties to help kill bacteria or other microorganisms that contribute to dental disease and bad breath."

Mouthwashes in the latter category, in other words, are designed to prevent or treat issues like plaque, gingivitis, halitosis (bad breath) and tooth decay—which means they may be a vital part of your routine if you suffer from any of the above. "Depending on each patient’s conditions or goals, I would recommend different mouthwashes for different purposes," says Dr. Kunen.

For example, she may prescribe patients with periodontal (gum) disease mouthwashes that contain antibacterial properties that will help prevent against worsening disease. "Antiseptic/antibacterial mouth rinses are a great way to keep plaque and gingivitis down, which are the causes of bleeding gums," agrees Lawrence Fung, DDS, founder of Silicon Beach Dental. "It has been shown that essential oils in brands like Listerine can have significant antiseptic properties leading to a reduction in bacteria that causes gum disease."

If a patient has a high risk of developing cavities, both docs instead recommend a mouthwash that contains fluoride. "A fluoride-containing mouth rinse like ACT ($7) is a fantastic addition to toothpaste for ultimate cavity protection," says Dr. Fung. "These rinses can be effective for sensitivity as well." If sensitive teeth are an issue, Dr. Kunen also recommends looking for mouthwash that contains potassium nitrate. "It helps to sooth inflamed nerves," she says.

If your mouth is severely dry—a condition which Dr. Fung says can result from autoimmune diseases like Sjogrens Syndrome, or post-radiation therapy—he recommends a moisturizing mouth rinse. "A great option for moisturizing is Hello Hemp Seed Oil mouth rinse ($6)—the coconut and hemp seed oil is great for moisturizing," says Dr. Fung. "In this mouth rinse there is also xylitol, which is great for saliva production." As an added bonus, Xylitol has been shown in research to reduce cavities as well.

In terms of ingredients to avoid when you're sourcing a mouthwash, Dr. Fung recommends skipping any product that contains sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). "It's essentially a detergent/surfactant," he says. "SLS has been linked to irritations in the mouth."

Dr. Kunen adds that the addition of alcohol in mouthwash is controversial. "The alcohol present in some mouthwashes is meant to serve as a mild antibacterial agent as well as a carrier for essential active ingredients such as menthol, eucalyptol, and thymol, which help to penetrate plaque," she says. "Some people fear alcohol-containing mouthwashes may cause oral cancer; however, while alcohol may lead to increased sensitivity of oral tissues or mild dry mouth, most alcohol-containing mouthwashes have negligible effects on oral health if used as directed."

Ultimately, whether or not you prioritize mouthwash should depend on your overall oral health. "Patients who are wondering if they should use mouthwash or what mouthwash is right for them should speak to their dentist, who may properly assess their needs and goals and direct them to the proper product," Dr. Kunen says. Meanwhile, those who don't need it for health reasons but would like to continue feeling minty fresh can probably just, you know, walk a few feet to the bathroom for a brushing whenever the mood strikes.

PSA: Dentists actually *don't* want you to brush your teeth after these foods. Plus, these are the most common brushing mistakes they see.

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