Ask LH: Is Mouthwash Good Or Bad For Your Teeth?

Dear Lifehacker, Are antibacterial mouthwashes safe to use for all gum types? I’ve read conflicting reports about their benefits and want to make sure I’m not doing more harm than good. Thanks, White Smile

Mouthwash image from Shutterstock

Dear WS,

Dental health is tougher to get right than most people realise. Even if you brush your teeth often and thoroughly, there are various things that can go wrong: from brushing at the wrong times of the day to brushing too hard. To further complicate matters, the oral hygiene products on the market aren’t always suited to everybody — and mouthwashes are no exception.

Interestingly, most oral health experts advise against using mouthwash straight after brushing. The UK National Health Service suggests waiting until after lunch, for example. You’re also supposed to refrain from eating and drinking for at least 30 minutes afterward.

We presented your query to Dr. Mark Burhenne, a dentist and author with over 30 years of experience. Here’s what he had to say:

Over reliance on mouthwash is one of the biggest mistakes people make when caring for their teeth. Using antibacterial mouthwash can disrupt the normal flora (or bacteria count) in the mouth. What a lot of people don’t realize is that we rely on a healthy balance of good bacteria in the mouth to keep us healthy.
Wiping all the bacteria out — good and bad — disrupts that delicate ecosystem of living bugs in the mouth and makes us prone to issues such as bad breath, oral yeast infections and cavities. I recommend to most of my patients that they ditch the mouthwash: you don’t need it. To prevent gingivitis, focus on oral hygiene, diet and an oral probiotic supplement. The mouthwash is a dangerous short-term solution that really has no efficacy at all.

It’s worth noting that not all dentists agree with Dr Buhenne’s assessments. Also, there are mouthwash products on the market that contain additional ingredients such as fluoride which can reduce the risk of tooth decay. The harsh alcohols can also help prevent periodontal disease, cankers and bad breath. Provided you follow good oral hygiene practices, these benefits arguably outweigh the importance of “good” bacteria.

If you’re not sure that mouthwash is right for you, we suggest going down the DIY route with a saltwater rinse made from table salt and warm water. Not only does salt work as a natural disinfectant, it can also reduce swelling in the gums.

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