Mouthwashes and Oral Cancer

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Despite being a household name, Listerine mouthwashes are known to contain high levels of alcohol, which are of no significant benefit in the fight against oral disease.
Most of us don’t think twice when strolling through supermarket aisles in the quest for the best toothpastes or mouthwashes. With some supermarkets and grocery stores luring shoppers with attractive prices for barrels and tubs of mouthwashes, it’s important to think twice before going for such products without knowledge of what they put in such items.

Mouthwashes have for years been marketed as an important tool when it comes to oral hygiene and well being and having an attractive smile. Such products have particularly excelled in a market where more and more emphasis is today placed on personal grooming and presentation. Whilst mouthwashes have little therapeutic benefit (according to literature sources) except for the severely diseased, people still have a knack of buying them because of the “fresh breath and taste”. It makes us feel “important”. This is a misnomer that pharmaceutical companies thrive on and will have you believe anything nowadays. What the companies don’t tell us is the concern generated in research studies in recent times over some of their ingredients.   

Over the recent years, there has been a growing debate at the alarming relationship proposed between oral cancer and alcohol. It is now a well-established fact that alcohol is a risk factor in the development of this condition. Other major risk factors that enhance the likelihood of oral cancer susceptibility include smoking, alcohol, lack of Folate, Vitamin B12, and iron, and use of alcohol-containing mouthwashes.

Alcohol and Its Effects

Without getting too technical, alcohol is understood to make it easier for other carcinogens (e.g. nicotine in tobacco smoking) to penetrate oral tissues. Cancer-causing agents can thus enter the body and cause damage elsewhere. This would suggest that those who smoke AND drink are in fact exposed to multiple, simultaneous risk factors which would indeed elevate the risk of developing oral cancer.

Proposed Mechanism for the Really Keen

Alcohol is normally used as a disinfectant and an antiseptic in mouthwashes at an approximate concentration of 10-12 percent. Anything above this concentration becomes dangerous and exposes the individual to high levels of oral acetaldehyde (ACD). ACD is a well known cancer-causing agent which can be formed in the mouth by bacteria. It can also be formed in the liver by enzymes and is common in heavy drinkers. In heavy drinkers and some populations, high levels of ACD in the mouth can in turn increase the risk of a person developing oral cancer. Oral cancer is a crippling condition which can leave a person permanently disabled or dead.

Alcohol-containing mouthwashes are therefore considered another source of ACD which are best avoided. Some mouthwashes use more than 20 percent w/v alcohol and are considered dangerous for their contribution to high levels of ACD.

The Listerine Story

Listerine mouthwashes are known to contain high levels of alcohol, which are of no significant benefit in the fight against oral disease. Listerine has been a common household name and there have been known accounts of people “having bought tubs of the product at low prices” off supermarket shelves. Listerine and all other alcohol-containing mouthwashes are unsafe, and it is of utmost importance that people are aware of this fact. A few years ago, British Dental Journal reported a major outcry amongst the British public at the discovery of the above fact. Listerine faced some tough questions regarding the benefits of its alcohol-containing products, and has continued to produce it despite the objections of health professionals.

While the role of alcohol and ACD is still being researched, further studies are still required to firmly establish this link with oral Cancer and alcohol. We are often reminded that “Prevention is better than cure”, and the reader is encouraged to look further into this issue, as it may have implications for yourself or someone you know.

For further research, see:

MJ McCullough, CS Farah. “A review of the role of alcohol in oral carcinogenesis with particular reference to alcohol containing mouthwashes.” Australian Dental Journal 2008; 53:302-305.

Rehan Abbas is studying dentistry at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is a new member of the Islamic Insights team and will be periodically writing about various health- and community-related topics.

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