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Gum Disease and Mouthwash

By Jessica Blue ; Updated August 14, 2017

You've probably seen countless commercials promoting mouthwash for healthy gums, and warning against the gum disease gingivitis. However, not all mouthwash products are the same, and mouthwash can not always cure gum disease. By understanding how gum disease works, you can improve your hygiene and choose the right mouthwash.

Origins of Gum Disease

The Mayo Clinic states that gum disease always begins as plaque. Plaque is an invisible, sticky coating that is mostly composed of bacteria. It forms on the surfaces of your teeth and can be removed by regular brushing and mouthwash. If plaque stays on your teeth longer than two days, it can turn into tartar along your gumline. Tartar can't be removed by brushing and flossing. It harbors bacteria that irritate your gums. This causes them to swell and bleed, a condition known as periodontitis, gingivitis or gum disease.

Function of Mouth Washing

The American Dental Association states that food particles can remain in the mouth after eating. These particles collect bacteria. Mouth washing, along with brushing and flossing, can help to remove these particles. The University of Maryland Medical center also recommends regular use of mouthwash to help to fight periodontitis. However, both sources agree that mouth washing on its own does not clean the mouth adequately: You must use it alongside brushing and flossing to fight harmful bacteria.

Mouthwash and Bacteria

When choosing a mouthwash, the University of Maryland Medical Center, UMMC, writes that you should look for certain bacteria-fighting ingredients. Chlorhexidine, found in prescription mouthwashes, is extremely effective at reducing plaque and gingivitis, but is not proven to fight periodontal disease. Listerine, composed of essential oils, reduces plaque and gingivitis. This removes the substances that harbor bacteria, but does not kill bacteria themselves. Cetylpyridinium, found in Scope and Cepacol, has a moderate antimicrobial effect but is not as effective as the ingredients in Listerine.

Fluoride does not kill bacteria, but prevents tooth decay. This can help your teeth protect themselves from bacteria, says the UMMC.


Some mouthwashes contain alcohol. According to The New York Times, some people might object to the high alcohol content. A study published in Journal of Clinical Periodontology found that alcohol had no added benefit in fighting gingivitis, but could cause irritation. The University of Maryland Medical Center adds that alcoholic mouthwash is not safe for children and should be kept away from them. Listerine has been specifically targeted for its alcohol content. A lower-alcohol version of Listerine, according to The New York Times, appears to be equally effective.

Recommended Use

The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends rinsing your mouth with mouthwash for 30 seconds to one minute, twice daily. This should always be combined with brushing and flossing. You should also have regular dental cleanings. See your dentist if you experience signs of potential gum disease, including bad breath, painful gums or bleeding.

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