The problem with alcohol in your mouthwash


The controversy over cigarettes and booze is stale compared to a new and more pressing issue that has come to light: the carcinogenic effects of mouthwash and specifically, of Listerine. The price you are paying for that minty sweet after smell of using mouthwash is way too high.

Mouthwash has more alcohol in it than wine and consumers could be heading for a health disaster no less than oral cancer. According to the findings of a study published in the Dental Journal of Australia, mouthwash poses a serious risk to the development of oral cancer among consumers. A substance called ethanol in mouthwash makes the lining of the mouth more permeable to cancer causing substances. Mouthwash, when gargled tends to get converted into acetaldehyde which can then accumulate in the oral cavity. Acetaldehyde is a by product of alcohol known to be highly toxic.

This same study stated that mouthwash containing alcohol should be made a “by prescription only” product with all the necessary health warnings printed on the front.

Mouthwash doesn’t really fight bad breath

According to another report, there was enough evidence from an international study of 3120 people to show that mouthwash was a major risk factor in the development of tumors in the head and neck, regardless of whether consumers smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol. However, smokers got the brunt end of the stick with a nine-fold increase in their risk of contracting cancers of the larynx, pharynx or oral cavity if they also used Listerine or an equivalent product. It is the swishing around and holding in the mouth that creates the problem. Alcohol on the other hand, is swallowed and when had alongside food, causes less damage to the body because of increased salivation. Moreover, alcohol is broken down by the liver, and the process of digesting it actually begins in the mouth.
The fact of the matter is that alcohol added to mouthwash is not there to destroy bacteria but is present as a carrier agent for menthol, thymol and eucalyptol, which are put in to fight plaque.

However, some brands of mouthwash contain such high levels of alcohol (more than double what’s present in wine) raising the risk of developing cancer quite significantly. There is more. Alcohol dries the mouth and could make bad breath a worse problem than what it was to begin with. In order to maintain moisture levels in the mouth, tissues will end up sacrificing water and this will further slow down the production of saliva. According to some medical experts, using mouthwash can so dry up the mouth as to leave little oral fluids to flush out bacteria – which means they can multiply in the mouth. So much for oral hygiene then because long term use of mouthwash defeats the very purpose for which is it being used. Besides bad breath could come for a lot of different reasons ranging from coughs and colds to extremely poor digestion even.

Some manufacturers of mouthwash, however, have become wise to this debate and are making products that are water based rather than alcohol based. Experts are saying that the cleansing properties of water-based rinses are effective enough to keep bad breath in check, while being benign enough to keep cancer at bay.


Nanditha Ram
Nanditha Ram is a Reiki master and yoga and wellness coach, holistic therapist, and writer, living and working in New Zealand.