Does mouthwash improve dental health?

Proper oral care includes three steps: brushing, flossing and rinsing.

You've heard it since you were a child: brush your teeth and use mouthwash. If you head to a supermarket, you'll see bottles upon bottles of these rinses proclaiming miracles, from 24-hour fresh breath to tooth whitening treatments. But are any of these claims true? How effective is mouthwash, really? Can you replace rinsing with flossing, or just skip the process altogether?

While not necessarily the utmost important step in oral care, mouthwash assists in some ways brushing and flossing cannot.

History of mouthwash

Humans have used oral rinses in some form or fashion since ancient history. That doesn't mean all of them were effective, however. Some methods were unsavoury – for example, the ancient Greeks used a mixture of vinegar, salt and alum, while the Chinese used to rinse with children's urine.

Rinsing with alcoholic beverages became common practice during the Renaissance, and that ingredient is still commonly used today. However, a good mouthwash will have other ingredients to help maintain oral health.

What mouthwash does for oral hygiene

Proper oral care includes three steps: brushing, flossing and rinsing. The first gets rid of the majority of plaque and bacteria, while the second step cleans out in between the teeth and stimulates the gums.

An appropriate mouthwash can get to places even toothbrushes and floss can't reach, giving you an extra thorough clean. It can also kill bacteria that cause bad breath, tooth decay and gum disease, depending on the type of rinse you choose.

Choosing the right type of mouthwash

There are two types of oral rinses: cosmetic and therapeutic.

Cosmetic mouthwash is what makes people feel sceptical about mouthwash. They provide temporary benefits but have no chemical or biological application to produce long-lasting effects. They'll alleviate bad breath or remove surface stains, but they don't do much more beyond that. Since the end result is temporary, not permanent, some people believe they don't work and write off oral rinses all together.

But not all mouthwash is created equal. Therapeutic rinses have active ingredients that cause biological or chemical changes, which in turn improves one's oral health. Often those biological changes mean killing bacteria that cause bad breath, gingivitis or tooth decay. Some rinses also have ingredients that fortify tooth enamel, warding off cavities. To get the most out of your mouthwash, read the label for active ingredients like fluoride, peroxide or chlorhexidine.

Therapeutic rinses can also alleviate residual pain from oral surgery. As a child, your parents may have told you to rinse your mouth with warm salt water if you ever felt pain. Mouthwash can have the same effect, and possibly even help you heal. Some of these rinses are available over the counter, while others must be prescribed.

How to use mouthwash correctly

It sounds like a simple action, but some people use mouthwash at the wrong point during their oral care process.

When you should rinse – before or after brushing or flossing – depends on the ingredients in your mouthwash and your toothpaste. Some have ingredients that lose their effectiveness when mixed with fluoride. If so, you should rinse with water in between brushing and rinsing. Look at the directions on your toothpaste and mouthwash before using a new brand for the first time so you don't accidentally negate the effects of one or the other.

Choosing mouthwash

Look for rinses that tackle your primary oral concerns when purchasing a dental rinse. If halitosis bothers you, for example, choose rinses tailored to killing bacteria that causes bad breath. You may need to fight a specific root cause, like gum disease, to really get rid of the smell. Meanwhile, if you're prone to cavities, opt for a fluoride-fortified rinse that leaves this decay-fighting ingredient on your teeth.

The lowdown on mouthwash

Yes, mouthwash can improve your dental health – assuming you choose the right kind and use it in the recommended way. For help on choosing a rinse and for basic oral care, contact the specialists at City Dentists today.