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Thomas P. Connelly, D.D.S.

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Mouth Health: Does My '50 Proof' Alcohol Mouthwash Increase My Cancer Risk ?

Posted: 05/10/10 10:54 AM ET

Let's talk today about something that has been bothering me for awhile. And that's the fact that it's very likely that alcohol-based mouthwash (which is almost all of them) is, in all likelihood, something that will increase your risk of getting Oral Cancer.

The first thing I want to get out of the way is the "stats" or the "absoluteness" of that statement. If you do any research on the subject, you'll be pointed to the Dental Journal of Australia and the findings of one Professor Michael McCullough. In his report, he cites several international studies done that do provide a link between alcohol-based mouthwash and oral cancer. In one such study, which included 3,210 people, concluded that "mouthwash use was a 'significant risk factor' for head and neck cancer."

Now, one "rebuttal" is "well, people who smoke and drink, which are known oral cancer causes, are more likely to use mouthwash." That's fair -- Professor McCullough's research showed people who smoked and used mouthwash were 10 times more likely to get oral cancer than someone who used neither. And yes, alcohol drinkers were more than five times more likely. So yes, that rebuttal holds true to a point. But here's the kicker -- his research also showed that mouthwash users who neither smoked nor drank were still four to five times more likely to develop oral cancer than non-mouthwash users. That's pretty telling.

I'll be honest -- sometimes I don't like to rely 100 percent on statistics (I've said this before). That's because "stats" can be skewed either way, depending on how you word the question or the findings. You know what I prefer to use along with my stats? Good old logic and common sense. And here's what good old logic and common sense tell me:

Fact: Alcohol is a well known and established Oral Cancer risk factor. In fact, it's the number two risk factor (behind tobacco). There is no doubt about this. I'm not saying a few beers will give you oral cancer, but it's been established that heavy alcohol users are far more likely to get oral cancer. And, as we'll see in a second, in terms of your mouth, using mouthwash can put you into that "heavy alcohol user" category (whether you drink or not).

Fact: Almost all mouthwashes contain not just alcohol, but a significant amount of alcohol. Typically 25 percent (that's 50 proof, folks). That's about four to five times as much as beer, about twice as much as wine, and as much as some hard liquor. Your mouthwash is pretty potent stuff.

Fact: Most folks rinse with mouthwash for 20-30 seconds or so (which is far longer than alcohol stays in your mouth when you drink wine or beer.) So not only does mouthwash contain more alcohol than wine or beer, but you keep it in your mouth far longer.

It is this last aspect, coupled with daily use, that can bring a mouthwash user into the high-risk "heavy alcohol user" percentile when it comes to oral cancer risk factors. In fact, even if a person doesn't drink alcohol at all, daily use of alcohol-based mouthwash can make them a far higher oral cancer risk than someone who drinks moderately, but doesn't use mouthwash.

So, why haven't you heard anything yet ...

I'm pretty sure you are thinking "wait ... why haven't I heard anything about this yet? After all, things that are bad for me are always brought to light, right?" (You can stop chuckling now.)

Well, let's take a look at that. It's my theory that we haven't heard much about this because of the HUGE can of worms it will open. You see what happened with the tobacco industry, right? Lawsuits galore. And that was for a product that, let's face it, we all knew was bad.

Conversely, mouthwash is actually marketed as a health product. Can you imagine the outrage and lawsuits that will arise if and when this is admitted? It could bankrupt some huge companies. Believe me, they are not going to let that happen (which is why you have to follow my lead and rely on common sense and logic in this case.)

These companies put alcohol in their mouthwash as a flavor carrier, to provide some "burn and bite," and to give a short-term antibacterial shot to your mouth (and it is short-term ... trust me; mouthwash is not necessary, or even very effective, in combating bad breath or the like.) In other words, alcohol makes the mouthwash "seem" effective. It's marketing, plain and simple.

So, what can you do? Well, it's simple: don't use mouthwash, for starters. It's just not necessary for good oral hygiene. If you must use something, use a natural mouthwash (available in most health stores) that doesn't have alcohol.

I hope this makes sense to you. Think about it, and draw your own conclusions (and please don't wait for the FDA to tell you something is bad ... You might be waiting a looong time.)

Until next time, keep smiling.

 

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