Mouthwash & Your Oral Microbiome: A Cautionary Tale
Whether it’s the first day at a new job or a first date, it’s not unusual to become hyper-aware of the way our breath smells prior to an important first impression. No one wants to walk away from an encounter feeling like they’ll be known as the one with bad breath. If this is something you struggle with, or you simply like to stay on top of your oral health game, you may reach for mouthwash once or twice a day. We’re here to let you know that this may not help alleviate bad breath. In fact, it could exacerbate any existing issues and create space for new ones to form.
You can think of mouthwash as a band-aid solution. If you’re experiencing bad breath, mouthwash won’t acknowledge or treat the root cause. It is a signal from your body that requires further investigation. According to a study at Ohio State, bad breath can stem from “eating certain foods, not brushing regularly, or having certain health conditions.” Of course, if you’re experiencing consistent sour breath, a dentist can help you determine if damage to your gums or teeth might be contributing to the problem.
Using mouthwash is meant to cut out bad-breath causing bacteria in the mouth, but what about the helpful, beneficial bacteria that live there too? Your oral microbiome requires balance, but when mouthwash makes an appearance - it rarely discriminates between what’s causing harm and what can be helpful to your oral environment. Recent studies are delving into this with interesting results. One such study found that regular gargling with mouthwash was “associated with a significant decrease in saliva pH and buffering capacity, accompanied by an increase in saliva lactate and glucose levels.” In other words, the study found that mouthwash triggered a substantial shift in the oral microbiome. The result was a more acidic environment, which could undermine the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria.
This is due in part to the antiseptic or antibacterial nature of many mouthwashes, especially ones that use alcohol as a key ingredient. Everytime you gargle, your mouthwash is indiscriminately wiping out your oral microbiome, good and bad. Given that your mouth is a window to the rest of your body, the oral microbiome is crucial in helping keep pathogens at bay. Killing all the bacteria in your mouth could leave you - and your immune system - susceptible to an opportunistic pathogen or not-so-friendly bacteria, especially ones who already prefer an acidic environment.
According to an article in Forbes, “there is no medical reason for most people to use mouthwash. Most people do so because they think it will improve their breath, however, if you have bad breath that doesn’t resolve with brushing and flossing, mouthwash is like spraying perfume in a bathroom - you need instead to solve the problem.”
With that said, step one is visiting your dentist to evaluate if there are any serious underlying causes of the bad breath. Your dentist may recommend a prescription oral mouth rinse to help you with any issues (ask them about the ingredients so you’re informed). We’re also seeing more and more oral rinses that contain strains of probiotics on the market, designed to support and maintain a healthy oral microbiome. However, if you’re simply looking for some natural solutions to spruce up your scent, here are some ideas:
Take your dental hygiene seriously.
When we think about solutions, it’s usually most effective to address the root cause. Brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing daily ensures that you’re clearing out bits of food that can lead to bad breath.
Ever woken up from a nap with a dry mouth and some not-so-great smelling breath? Saliva helps keep your mouth clean and balanced, so a dry mouth could mean bad breath. Keep your body hydrated and try to drink water throughout the day to prevent dry mouth. A good rule of thumb is drinking .5-1 ounce per pound you weigh.
Incorporate whole foods and herbs that can help.
Certain foods and herbs can help keep bad breath out of your mouth and out of your life. Parsley and mint leaves can have a deodorizing effect when chewed after a pungent meal while fermented foods like yogurt or kefir can introduce beneficial bacteria and prebiotics to your oral microbiome.
But if mouthwash still feels like an appropriate next step, look for ones on the market that may be more supportive of the oral microbiome. Choose mouthwashes that refrain from ingredients like alcohol or added sugars. You can also consult with your dentists to find a product that is right for you.
But don’t forget: there’s no need to fear breath. Supporting a thriving oral microbiome is the root to replacing your mouthwash and never looking back.
1 Mariotti, A., DDS, P. D. (2022, March 8). [Mouthwash and healthy bacteria]. Ohio State Health and Discovery. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from health.osu.edu
2 Bescos, R., et al. (2020, March 24). [Chlorhexidine effects on mouth health]. Nature News. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from nature.com
3 [Mouthwash and long-term effects]. (2021, June 29). Forbes. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from forbes.com
Osborn, C. O. K. (2019, March 8). Home remedies for Bad breath: Baking soda, vinegar, and more. Healthline. Retrieved October 17, 2022, from healthline.com