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Is There a Link Between Mouthwash and Oral Cancer?

Cancer is surrounded by endless myths and misinformation. Some consumer products are believed to cause the condition, while others are thought to provide treatment or decrease your risk.

However, in the case of oral cancer, lifestyle factors have been scientifically linked to the disease, ending the speculation and giving patients the opportunity to minimize their exposure.

Oral cancer is one of the five most common forms of the disease, but it can be hard to detect and is often found in later stages, requiring advanced treatments like radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.

Like many types of cancer, your risk of developing oral cancer can be elevated by hereditary and genetic factors. However, unlike other types, most oral cancers develop due to lifestyle habits like tobacco use and alcohol use disorder.

Excessive drinking can cause the cells in your mouth to weaken and become dehydrated, making them more susceptible to the mutations that cause cancer. It's important to have an honest conversation with your healthcare provider about your individual alcohol use.

Since alcohol is a known carcinogen and is found in most common mouthwashes, it has been suggested that mouthwash may be a cause of oral cancer.

Alcohol and Oral Cancer

“The suggested link between mouthwash and oral cancer is related to the alcohol content in traditional mouthwashes, opposed to the practice itself,” said Christopher E. Fundakowski, MD, a physician at Jefferson Health - Abington who specializes in cancers of the head and neck. “It’s well-established that alcohol is a risk factor for oral cancer.”

In fact, many formulas for the most popular mouthwashes contain about 25 percent alcohol, compared to vodka which contains about 40 percent alcohol.

“Because of the amount of alcohol, swishing your mouth multiple times per day is almost the same as taking a shot,” said Dr. Fundakowski. “But everyone’s risk level is different.” Risk level is calculated based on a patient’s health history and exam findings.

“Plus, we generally don’t use as much mouthwash as traditional alcohol,” said Dr. Fundakowski, “so it’s likely not a danger.” Instead, moderation and smart choices are key.

Dr. Fundakowski also reminds us that mouthwash was developed to kill the bacteria that cause gum disease and cavities, but there are other options that can provide those results without introducing additional risk.

“This is where nonalcoholic mouthwash comes in,” he said. “It all comes down to moderation and knowing your personal history.”

Knowing your family and personal health history is vital when gauging your risk and creating healthy habits. If a close family member has been diagnosed with oral cancer, or you have been treated for other cancers in the past, you may have an elevated risk for the disease. In this case, a nonalcoholic mouthwash may be ideal.

“Anytime you have a substance that could have a risk attached, you need to consider it in moderation,” said Dr. Fundakowski. “Drinking one alcoholic beverage or using mouthwash according to the recommended guidelines likely won’t have negative effects. However, anything is possible with overuse or in those with history of malignancy or elevated risk."

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