Rinsing with a mouthwash can give your mouth a cool, fresh feeling, but how important is it? Does it really lead to better health outcomes for your teeth and gums? Overwhelmingly, yes, according to the dentists we spoke to.
There are two different kinds of mouthwash: cosmetic, which masks bad breath, and therapeutic, which serves clinical purposes like attacking bacteria or plaque. “When used correctly,” explains Dr. Sheri Doniger, an Illinois-based dentist, “therapeutic mouthwashes have been clinically effective in reducing dental biofilm accumulation,” as well as treating halitosis and periodontal diseases, such as gingivitis and periodontitis.
SKIP AHEAD Best mouthwashes | Should you use mouthwash before or after brushing?
To help you find mouthwash that fits your needs, we talked to Doniger and other experts about which ingredients matter most, and for whom. We focused on six therapeutic mouthwashes in this guide, because of their tangible health benefits.
How to pick a mouthwash
Each expert we spoke to recommended buying a mouthwash with the ADA Seal of Acceptance. “You can’t go wrong” with an ADA Seal mouthwash, said Dr. Edmond Hewlett, a professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry, because they’ve been “scientifically evaluated to be effective.” They also noted that your dentist can help the best mouthwash for your needs.
As for cosmetic vs. therapeutic mouthwashes, cosmetic mouthwashes “may temporarily control bad breath and leave behind a pleasant taste, but have no chemical or biological application beyond their temporary benefit,” according to the ADA. They may be a great option after a particularly garlicky meal, but they won’t fight the root causes of periodontal disease, like plaque or gingivitis.
On the other hand, therapeutic mouthwashes, which we recommend below, have active ingredients that can kill bacteria, control plaque or bad breath, provide more fluoride to the teeth and otherwise help improve dental health.
Here are some common ingredients that experts we spoke to highlighted, and how they can help improve dental health:
- Cetylpyridinium chloride, or CPC, is found in mouthwashes as an antiseptic ingredient — Doniger told us it “kills bacteria by reducing plaque accumulation and gingival inflammation.” CPC is part of a class of compounds found in many household cleaners, like detergents and disinfectant sprays, according to Hewlett.
- Sodium fluoride: Fluorinated mouthwashes can help “decrease oral decay, strengthen tooth enamel and increase enamel remineralization,” Doniger said. The active ingredient, sodium fluoride, is a common ingredient in toothpaste, but you can find it in mouthwashes too.
- Chlorine dioxide is an ingredient used for halitosis (bad breath), since it can reduce mouth bacteria that produce sulfur, according to Doniger.
- Menthol, eucalyptol and thymol are derived from various plants and essential oils. These ingredients contribute to the minty fresh flavor that people like in their mouthwashes, but also have some antiseptic properties too, Hewlett says.
- Alcohol is an astringent, so it draws out moisture, which Hewlett says can provide an extra clean feeling in your mouth.
- Hydrogen peroxide is an oxygenating ingredient that can help with “wound healing and decreasing inflammation from periodontal disease or an infection around the crown of the tooth,” Doniger told us. Hydrogen peroxide can also have a whitening effect on the teeth, but Hewlett says that the impact is minimal since the concentration is low in these mouthwashes.
You can read more about mouthwashes on the ADA website.
The experts we spoke to recommended looking for the ADA Seal of Acceptance when purchasing a mouthwash, so we rounded up these therapeutic mouthwashes from notable brands that have the seal and serve a variety of dental needs. The following options are available over-the-counter at popular retailers.
ACT Anticavity Fluoride Rinse
This anticavity mouthwash contains sodium fluoride as its active ingredient, as well as antiseptic ingredients like menthol and CPC. The ADA says the mouthwash “is safe and has shown efficacy in helping to prevent tooth decay.”
Biotene Dry Mouth Oral Rinse
According to the ADA, this mouthwash “is safe and has shown efficacy in temporarily relieving dry mouth symptoms.” Thus, this mouthwash doesn’t contain alcohol and has a formula that the brand says “soothes and lubricates,” dry mouth for up to four hours.
Listerine Total Care Anticavity Mouthwash
This mouthwash contains several ingredients that the dentists we spoke to highlighted: The active ingredient sodium fluoride fights cavities and menthol, eucalyptol and thymol have antiseptic properties. The ADA says the mouthwash “is safe and has shown efficacy in helping to prevent tooth decay.”
Listerine Antiseptic Mouthwash
This mouthwash’s ingredients include eucalyptol, menthol and thymol — which provide antiseptic properties — and it also contains alcohol, which can contribute to an overall clean mouth feel. The rinse “is safe and has shown efficacy in helping to prevent and reduce gingivitis (and plaque above the gumline),” according to the ADA.
Tom’s Alcohol-Free Children’s Anticavity Fluoride Rinse
Formulated for children’s use, this alcohol-free mouthwash uses the active ingredient sodium fluoride, which can help prevent cavities and strengthen teeth. The ADA says the rinse “is safe and has shown efficacy in helping to prevent tooth decay.”
CloSYS Non-Irritating Rinse
This alcohol-free mouthwash “is safe and has shown efficacy in helping to reduce bad breath,” according to the ADA. The rinse contains chlorine dioxide, so it can decrease the number of bacteria producing sulfur in your mouth, Doniger told us above.
Should you use mouthwash before or after brushing?
People often wonder whether to brush, floss or rinse first, said Hewlett, but the order doesn’t matter too much. In fact, using mouthwash isn’t necessarily “a standard part of recommended maintenance.” Flossing and brushing with fluoride toothpaste for two minutes is enough to “accomplish everything you need to accomplish as far as keeping your teeth clean,” Hewlett said. Though the common “traditional” recommendation, Hewlett said, is for people to floss first, then brush, then rinse with a therapeutic mouthwash — Doniger recommends using mouthwash after brushing
Though in certain cases, mouthwash can be an important tool. For example, if you have an acidic drink like orange juice, the juice can “remove enamel molecules.” Brushing your teeth after said acidic drink can “hasten the erosion of enamel” over time, Hewlett said. He suggested that if you want that clean feeling after consuming acidic foods or drinks, mouthwash might be a good alternative. Some people also may need prescription mouthwashes or need to rinse more often for certain health reasons — dentists might suggest rinsing twice a day to treat halitosis and dry mouth or to induce enamel remineralization, Doniger said.
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