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What Is Antimicrobial Mouthwash?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated May 21, 2024
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Mouthwash is a generic term for a liquid that a person sloshes around his or her mouth after brushing the teeth. Antimicrobial means that the substance has some killing or controlling effect on microbes like bacteria. An antimicrobial mouthwash, therefore, is a liquid that specifically aims to reduce or control the level of microbes in the mouth. This type of product can range from a mouthwash that contains antibiotics to one that has a milder effect.

Antibiotics are a group of substances that are so good at killing bacteria that doctors administer them to patients to get rid of an infection. Typically, because of their biological effect, antibiotic mouthwashes are not sold over the counter. Tetracycline or doxycycline mouthwashes are some examples.

An antimicrobial mouthwash, instead of containing an antibiotic, may contain any other substance that is regarded as antimicrobial and is safe to use in the mouth regularly. A common example is chlorhexidine, which is an antiseptic. This means that the chemical is not as efficient as antibiotics in killing bacteria, but rather that its primary function is to prevent the microbes from growing.

The mouth naturally contains microbes, and these live harmlessly for the most part in the mouth and on the teeth. These natural bacteria appear to protect the oral environment from infection by other, dangerous microbes. As the mouth is part of the digestive system, and lots of nutrients pass through it every day, however, sometimes natural mouth microbes can overgrow and cause damage. The type of damage that they can inflict includes tooth decay and gum inflammation.

This type of damage is very common in humans, and so brushing and flossing teeth is recommended to be an everyday routine. Although the mechanical act of brushing and flossing between teeth removes particles, collections of plaque and food, microbial concentrations in the mouth may still grow out of control and cause damage. To keep populations of microbes at a low level in the mouth, some people use an antimicrobial mouthwash as well as toothpaste, toothbrushing and floss.

Dental research generally shows that an antimicrobial mouthwash that has been approved by a reputable dental association can reduce the chance of a person developing gum inflammation or caries in the tooth that require fillings. The amount of plaque on teeth can also be reduced with regular use. Possible disadvantages to antimicrobial mouthwashes can include teeth staining.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1000247 — On Jul 22, 2018

Prescription anti microbial gets rid of bad breath.

By serenesurface — On Nov 09, 2014

I use a fluoride mouthwash to prevent cavities. I think fluoride doesn't kill bacteria but keeps them from growing. And it also strengthens tooth enamel so that bacteria have less chance of attaching and growing on it. I'm very happy with fluoride mouthwash. I used to get cavities often before I started using it. I don't like mouthwash with alcohol and other harsh ingredients. I feel like those make things worse by irritating my gum and teeth.

By literally45 — On Nov 09, 2014

@stoneMason-- Bacteria is a type of microbes. Microbes can be various harmful, foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Most antimicrobial mouthwashes though, are antibacterial mouthwashes. These are the commercial available ones that most people use for general oral hygiene. Like the article mentioned though, there are other types out there, prescription mouthwashes with other antimicrobial ingredients.

Unless you have a specific dental condition requiring a specific antimicrobial mouthwash, you will be fine using an over the counter one. Don't get confused about antibacterial mouthwash and antiseptic mouthwash. Antiseptic almost always means that the mouthwash has alcohol. But it's not required for a product to have alcohol in order to be antimicrobial. So alcohol-free mouthwashes can be antimicrobial too.

By stoneMason — On Nov 08, 2014

I am a little confused by this term. So are antimicrobial and antibacterial mouthwash referring to the same thing? Does it matter which I get?

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