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Mouth rinses don't always wash with dental experts

Over-the-counter mouth rinses may not prevent dental health problems

Over-the-counter mouth rinses may leave your breath feeling fresh for several hours, but their effectiveness in preventing tooth decay, gingivitis and periodontal (gum) disease is limited.

Some research indicates that rinsing with water is just as effective in controlling plaque. At their worst, antiplaque rinses and antiseptics may actually mask bad breath and an unpleasant taste in your mouth, two of the first signs of periodontal disease.

In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has classified mouth rinses as either cosmetic, therapeutic or a combination of the two — recognition that some products do nothing to help stop or even slow the disease process.

“Over-the-counter rinses should not be considered substitutes for regular dental examinations, cleanings and a proper home regimen of brushing with fluoride toothpaste and flossing,” said Kevin Sheu, DDS, director of professional services for Delta Dental.

“Mouth rinses should only be used in conjunction with other disease prevention methods,” Dr. Sheu said. “They're only an aid and should not be used exclusively for maintaining your oral health.”

If you decide to use an anti-cavity rinse, dentists suggest following these steps after every meal: floss, brush, and then rinse. Teeth should be as clean as possible for a mouth rinse to be most effective.

For patients with problem areas, Dr. Sheu said that some prescription rinses are more effective than over-the-counter rinses and can significantly help the healing process and control bacteria levels.

Side effects vary depending on the type of rinse used. Habitual use of antiseptic mouthwashes containing high levels of alcohol (ranging from 18 to 26%) may produce a burning sensation in the cheeks, teeth and gums. Many prescribed rinses with more concentrated formulas can lead to ulcers, sodium retention, root sensitivity, stains, soreness, numbness and changes in taste sensations if they are overused.

Talk to your dentist before using any type of rinse. Because children tend to accidentally swallow mouthwashes, they should only use rinses under adult supervision.

Mouth rinses. AGD Factsheet from the Academy of General Dentistry.
Last updated: February 2016

The oral health information on this web site is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.