Listerine Mouthwash has been around for as long as most of us and few would suspect that it is harmful. In fact, it’s probably saved many a romantic interactions. So we were intrigued when we read about a 2011 lawsuit filed against Listerine’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, by a company that produces an oral cancer detection kit. Why would a medical detection company due Johnson & Johnson? It turns out that Listerine may cause oral cancer and the lawsuit alleges that Listerine’s maker tried to interfere with customer’s ability to connect the dots between oral cancer and Listerine. But as we dug into this further, we found that many medical professionals agree: Listerine may be the worse thing for your mouth’s health…and your longevity. Intrigued? Read on:
The lawsuit “Oral Cancer Prevention Inc. v. Johnson & Johnson“, alleged that Johnson & Johnson had been worried by a 2008 study in the Australian Dental Journal that concluded that mouthwashes with high alcohol content could cause oral cancer . The complaint stems from a 2008 Australian study that found that there is a hypothetical risk of the development of oral cancer from repeated use of alcohol containing mouthwashes. Subsequent studies hinted at the same. Subsequently, a European study suggested, but couldn’t conclude, that mouthwash is used more than twice daily. The British Dental Journal recommended against the use of alcohol-based mouthwash:
“Some studies have shown that regular use of such mouthwashes can increase the risk of developing oral cancer. Recently, the evidence has been reviewed by two separate authors. The conclusions from these reviews are conflicting… The evidence suggests that the alcohol component of mouthwashes affords little additional benefit to the other active ingredients in terms of plaque and gingivitis control. In view of this outcome and the hypothetical risk of oral cancer, it would seem prudent that members of the dental team advise their patients accordingly.”
The legal complaint has been assigned to arbitration and no outcome has been publicly released. But it sounded an alarm that has heightened since then. An increasing number of websites are reporting that Listerine and similar alcohol-based mouthwashes cause oral cancer. Now keep in mind that any alcohol is suspected of increasing rates of oral cancer. Individuals who consume 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (approximately 3.5 or more drinks per day) have at least a two to three times greater risk of developing oral cancer than nondrinkers. Moreover, the risk of cancer is substantially even higher among individuals who consume this amount of alcohol and smoke. (the latter being a no-brainer)
What people may not realize is that some popular over-the-counter mouthwashes ALSO contain alcohol… quite a bit of it with some containing up to 26% of volume. Alcohol is added to provide flavor and “bite.” For example, Listerine contains alcohol concentrations of 21.6% in the flavored product and 26.9% in the original gold Listerine Antiseptic. According to one preliminary research, the risk of developing oral cancer from mouthwash containing alcohol is almost 5 times higher than those who do not. Subsequent small studies have not supported this cancer risk, but in 2014, research performed on 3,956 patients did find an independent increased risk of cancer if alcohol-containing mouthwash was used 3 or more times a day. There are a number of theories about why alcohol-based mouthwashes (and alcohol, in general) irritates the oral tissue — kills useful bacteria, dries out mucous, irritates nerves — suffice to say that while science hasn’t figured out why, the consensus seems to be that oral cancer rates are higher where alcohol and the mouth come into frequent contact. For that reason, most mouthwash makers are now offering alcohol-free mouthwash, including Listerine.
However, mouthwash may be more of a problem than a solution. It turns out that any mouthwash — alcohol-free or not — still impact the health of your mouth. The concern is that the antimicrobial agents in mouthwash also kill beneficial bacteria in the mouth. It also doesn’t little, if nothing, for gum health. Better to rely upon flossing and brushing, than mouthwash. Also, peppermint or other herbal chews can safely neutralize any breath odors that you seek to mask. Some websites offer healthy, chemical-free home-made mouthwashes that consist largely of herbal oils, lemon and xylitol. If you use mouthwash, use it sparingly. If you can, prepare your own mouthwash — it is likely to be safer and more pleasant tasting. And if you buy conventional mouthwash, you are advised to purchase alcohol-free washes.