Whether it’s to mask bad breath, fight cavities or prevent the buildup of plaque, the sticky material that contains germs and can lead to oral diseases, mouth rinses serve a variety of purposes.

Though they may leave your mouth with a clean, fresh taste, some rinses can be harmful, concealing bad breath and unpleasant taste that are signs of periodontal diseases which cause inflammation and degeneration of the supporting structures of the teeth and tooth decay.

What are the differences in rinses?

Rinses are generally classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as either cosmetic or therapeutic, or a combination of the two. Cosmetic rinses are commercial over-the-counter (OTC) products that help remove oral debris before or after brushing, temporarily suppress bad breath, diminish bacteria in the mouth and refresh the mouth with a pleasant taste. Therapeutic rinses have the benefits of their cosmetic counterparts, but also contain an added active ingredient that helps protect against some oral diseases. Therapeutic rinses are regulated by the FDA and are voluntarily approved by the American Dental Association (ADA). Therapeutic rinses also can be categorized into types according to use: antiplaque/antigingivitis rinses and anticavity fluoride rinses.

Should I use a rinse?

That depends upon your needs. Most rinses are, at the very least, effective oral antiseptics that freshen the mouth and curb bad breath for up to three hours. Their success in preventing tooth decay, gingivitis (inflammation of the gingival gum tissue) and periodontal disease is limited.

Rinses are not considered substitutes for regular dental examinations and proper home care. Dentists stress a regimen of brushing with a fluoride toothpaste followed by flossing, along with routine trips to the dentist.

Which type should I use?

Again, that depends upon your needs. While further testing is needed, initial studies have shown that most over-the-counter antiplaque rinses and antiseptics aren’t much more effective against plaque and periodontal disease than rinsing with plain water. Most dentists are skeptical about the value of these antiplaque products, and studies point to only a 20 to 25 percent effectiveness, at best, in reducing the plaque that causes gingivitis.

Anticavity rinses with fluoride, however, have been clinically proven to fight up to 50 percent more of the bacteria that cause cavities. Nevertheless, many dentists consider the use of fluoride toothpaste alone to be more than adequate protection against cavities.

When and how often should I rinse?

Dentists suggest the following steps, practiced after every meal:, floss, brush then rinse. Teeth should be as clean as possible before applying an anticavity rinse to reap the full preventive benefits of the liquid fluoride. Many rinses suggest swishing for 30 seconds.

Are there any side effects to rinsing?

Yes, and they vary depending on the type of rinse. Habitual use of antiseptic mouthwashes containing high levels of alcohol (ranging from 8 to 26 percent) may produce a burning sensation in the cheeks, teeth and gums. It can cause intoxication if swallowed, used excessively, or used by children.

Many prescribed rinses with more concentrated formulas can lead to ulcers, sodium retention, root sensitivity, stains, soreness, numbness, changes in taste sensation and painful mucosal erosions. Most anticavity rinses contain sodium fluoride, which if taken excessively or swallowed, can lead over time to fluoride toxicity. Because children tend to accidentally swallow mouthwash, they should only use rinses under adult supervision. If you experience any irritating or adverse reactions to a mouth rinse, discontinue its use immediately and consult your dentist.

Can I make a home-made rinse?

Yes. You can prepare at home three widely used alternatives to brand name cosmetic rinses:

  1. Saline solution rinse 1/2 tsp. salt + 8 oz water
  2. For a stronger solution 1/2 tsp. salt + 4 oz water.
  3. Sodium bicarbonate 1/2 tsp. baking soda + 8 oz. water.

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