Why Mouthwash Burns and How to Stop It

In 2018, the most popular mouthwash in the United States generated over $350 million in sales, with the top 10 products accumulating over $900 million. As any dentist will tell you, mouthwash should play a key role in your daily dental hygiene regimen. 

But, just because you know that mouthwash use is important, that doesn’t always mean you know exactly what mouthwash is doing to freshen your smile, nor does it mean you are using mouthwash correctly. 

We are here to talk mouthwash, from the active ingredients and how mouthwash should be used, to those ever-wondering questions why does mouthwash burn? And how do I stop it?

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We’ve all felt it. The cool and refreshing smoothness of mouthwash as it swishes around our mouth for those wonderful first 10 seconds to that slow development of mouthwash burn that becomes unbearable. It’s recommended that mouthwash be used between 30 and 60 seconds each use, but it’s only the boldest of us whoever make it that long. 

So, what causes mouthwash to burn? The answer may surprise you. Hint, it is not just the alcohol. 

There are a few ingredients that may be responsible for that burning sensation: 


Okay, so we gave it away, alcohol isn’t the only ingredient in mouthwash that causes the burn. However, it is the leading candidate and powerful enough to burn away (yes, pun noted) the other burn candidates on the active ingredients list. 

One of the most well-known mouthwashes on the market, Listerine, in its infancy contained around 26.9% alcohol which was about 7% higher than market competitors. By comparison, the Alcohol by Volume (ABV) in Listerine was comparable to a blended or mixed drink such as a Rum and Coke as opposed to a high-end Whisky or Vodka.

One of the reasons why alcohol is so effective in mouthwash isn’t because of alcohol’s ability to kill off germs. In fact, the alcohol concentration in mouthwash is too low to kill germs and bacteria. Rather, alcohol in mouthwash is an inactive ingredient that delivers the active ingredients which do fight off germs and gingivitis. So, does alcohol provide some of the burns? Yes. Does alcohol kill off the germs in your mouth and hiding along your gums and teeth? Nope. 

As an inactive ingredient in mouthwash, alcohol plays two important roles in the effectiveness of mouthwash. 

  1. Alcohol acts as an agent to solubilize active ingredients. In other words, alcohol helps other ingredients dissolve better in water and the saliva within your mouth.
  2. Alcohol is also effective in delivering active ingredients such as essential oils into the plaque biofilm or bacterial communities. This delivery helps to reduce plaque and gingivitis.

So, why all of the misunderstanding over alcohol’s benefit in mouthwash? Alcohol, in high concentrations above 70% can kill off germs and bacteria. However, as mentioned earlier, the alcohol concentration in mouthwash is less than 27%, making it a much better solubilizer than disinfectant. 

Regardless of the misunderstandings around alcohol in mouthwash, if you pour mouthwash on an open wound (not suggested) it will burn, the same as your mouth when you swish, gargle, and spit. Though, mouthwash does have other ingredients that contribute to the burn. 

 Essential Oils

Essential oils are not just a fad that your hippy friend uses in the bath. Essential oils have been used as far back as 2000 B.C. for their unique healing and therapeutic benefits. In fact, using clove essential oil goes back centuries regarding dental hygiene due to its effectiveness in killing bacteria. 

Essential oils in today’s mouthwashes such as Menthol, Thyme, Peppermint, and Eucalyptus, break through and destroy biofilm that leads to periodontal disease. While brushing helps reduce about 25% of bacteria, essential oils in mouthwash can reach 100% of your mouth. 

It is the concentration of irritant-type essential oils such as menthol and peppermint that can contribute to the burning sensation when you swish and gargle mouthwash. Since essential oils are a concentrated form of already potent plants, the stronger the flavor of your mouthwash the more likely that essential oils have an impact on the burn. 

Hydrogen Peroxide

You may know Hydrogen Peroxide better as an antiseptic used to clean cuts or disinfect surfaces. However, Hydrogen Peroxide is versatile in its use and can be used as a mouthwash and is often found in low concentrations within mouthwash. Because Hydrogen Peroxide is an oxidizing agent it is known to kill bacteria and germs. 

One area of dental care where you will commonly find Hydrogen Peroxide is in teeth whitening, and this should also give you pause when using Hydrogen Peroxide in abundance and frequently as a mouth rinse. Many dentists recommend using Hydrogen Peroxide for specific reasons such as teeth whitening, mouth sores, sore throat, and the occasional treatment of gum disease. 

One of the reasons we created SNOW Teeth Whitening was to provide users with a safe product that eliminated the risks associated with Hydrogen Peroxide use and could be used alongside common mouthwashes and toothpaste, but the same can’t be said for other whitening products.

In regard to the burn, hydrogen peroxide is an active ingredient in mouthwash that not only kills bacteria and oxidizes teeth coloring but can also be partly responsible for the burn you feel when using mouthwash. 

Damaged Tongue/Mouth

While each mouthwash uses different concentrations and active ingredients in their formulas, the combination of alcohol, essential oils, and hydrogen peroxide can provide a multi-faceted burning sensation when used. Though there is one key factor that affects the pain in your mouth and degree of burn when it comes to mouthwash use and that is the already existing damage in your mouth. 

Remember when we said pouring mouthwash on an open wound will burn (again, don’t try)? Well, it’s true, and when your tongue, gums, and soft tissue within your mouth have been damaged you are sure to feel discomfort. 

Damage to your mouth is common, from brushing your teeth too hard to accidentally biting your cheeks and tongue. Additionally, if you floss after not flossing for a long period of time, mouth ulcers, and other lacerations in your mouth can create that open wound we talked about. 

One way to minimize some of the pain from damaged mouth tissue is to drink water prior to using mouthwash. Drinking water helps to wash away irritants in food such as cinnamon, sugars, and citric acids found in fruit. While this won’t remove the entirety of the burn, drinking a glass of water prior to using mouthwash will help to diminish some of the additional non-mouthwash ingredients that can contribute to pain in your mouth. 

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Is Mouthwash Good for You?

When you think of mouthwash, you likely think of two things: killing bacteria and good breath. You wouldn’t be wrong, but mouthwash has multiple uses to help improve your dental hygiene.

As part of your regular dental hygiene regimen, mouthwash can be a safe, effective, and important step in maintaining good health. Though it is important to understand that when it comes to mouthwash and how you use it there is no one-size-fits-all method for how you use mouthwash in your cleaning. 

A complimentary example to mouthwash use is how you brush your teeth. If you have sensitive teeth and gums you would use a less abrasive toothpaste and brush. The same goes for how you choose which mouthwash is best for your needs.

Yes, flavor and cost play a role in how you choose your mouthwash, but to effectively prevent oral damage and burn, choosing a mouthwash such as alcohol-free, or with a lesser concentration of essential oils may be best if you have a sensitive mouth and gums. 

To have a better understanding of whether mouthwash is good for you, let’s look at why you are using mouthwash or what type of mouthwash best aligns with your needs. 

Mouthwash for Bad Breath

No one likes to walk around with bad breath. In fact, mouthwash has become a staple for many people as they walk out the door to meet friends, go to work, or convince your dentist that you brush three times a day. 

When managing bad breath, a mouthwash with alcohol and a strong essential oil such as menthol or cinnamon do a pretty good job. That is, if you don’t have sensitive gums and teeth. 

A word of caution comes in to play with the use of alcohol mouthwashes. The recent transition away from alcohol mouthwashes isn’t because too many people have been complaining about the burn of mouthwash. Rather, the dryness associated with long-term use of alcohol can contribute to a reduction or even an elimination of saliva, otherwise known as dry mouth. Because saliva is produced by your body to flush out bacteria, a reduction in saliva production can result in bad breath, gingivitis, and other periodontal problems. 

While the right type of mouthwash can effectively aid in managing bad breath, it is important to understand that bad breath mitigation combines regular brushing, flossing, and hydration. 

Mouthwash for Sensitive Teeth

If you have sensitive teeth, choosing the right mouthwash is important, and can both reduce the burn you feel with an alcohol-based mouthwash as well as numb sensitive nerve endings. 

A mouthwash for sensitive teeth uses agents that can desensitize your teeth by acting to anesthetize the tubules in the dentin area of your teeth as well as coat your teeth enamel to make it stronger. 

If you have sensitive teeth look for ingredients such as potassium citrate, potassium nitrate, and sodium fluoride to help provide sensitivity relief. 

Mouthwash for General Needs

For the average person without sensitive teeth or other periodontal concerns, most mouthwashes are a safe and effective product to add to your daily teeth cleaning regimen. One important consideration is that while the burn of an alcohol-based mouthwash provides a sense of comfort that all the bacteria in your mouth has been killed, a non-alcohol mouthwash is just as effective at killing off germs and bacteria and it won’t have you lunging for the sink to relieve yourself of the burn. 

Mouthwash for Teeth Whitening

Whitening mouthwashes contain a low concentration of hydrogen peroxide, sodium citrate, and other ingredients to whiten teeth by bleaching, removal of recent staining and control of stains. While this sounds like a potentially effective way to whiten your teeth, using a whitening mouthwash can also contribute to tooth enamel damage. Since the benefit of using a whitening mouthwash depends on the length of time the mouthwash is used, these types of mouthwashes are often ineffective as most rinses last only 30 to 60 seconds. 

If you want white teeth, try the Snow Teeth Whitening kit instead. It’s safe, easy to use, and delivers results after your first application. It can also be used as part of your normal oral hygiene routine.

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When Should you Use Mouthwash? 

You probably didn’t realize how confusing the use of mouthwash could be, so let’s add another component for you. If you are like most people, you likely floss, brush your teeth and then gargle your mouth wash. After all, is there a better feeling than leaving your bathroom with a fresh and minty mouth?

To be fair, the research is limited on when the best time to use mouthwash is. And, the advice from leading medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, National Health Service (NHS), and the American Dental Association (ADA) are somewhat conflicting. 

While the Mayo Clinic recommends using mouthwash after brushing, the NHS recommends against this, citing that using mouthwash directly after brushing may wash away essential fluoride. The NHS recommendation is to use mouthwash, but to use it at another time of the day as opposed to directly after brushing. To further the confusion, the ADA says that when you use mouthwash is a personal preference as long as you consider the manufacturers recommendation.  

Most dentists tend to offer the same guidance as the ADA, and when it comes down to using a mouth rinse, the goal is to ensure that you are using a safe mouthwash, and a mouthwash that effectively compliments you daily dental cleaning regimen.