mouthwash in pouring into lid

You’ve probably heard your grandparent or an uncle tell you something like, “it burns because it’s working.” But when it comes to something like mouthwash, is it supposed to burn? Why does mouthwash burn anyway, and is it a bad thing that it does? 

Why Does Mouthwash Burn So Bad?

There are a couple of reasons why mouthwash burns your mouth. One can be that if there is something like alcohol in the mouthwash, burning tongue/cheeks/lips are a given, especially if the alcohol content is high. Remember, your mouth is covered in mucous membranes that are much more sensitive to the skin on the outside of your body, so it’s extremely susceptible to irritants.

Another reason why you might have a burning mouth after using mouthwash is because of an allergic reaction. For example, someone who is sensitive to chlorhexidine, a common ingredient in prescription mouthwash, may experience burning, tingling, and itchy sensations that last for several minutes or hours after each use. Why does mouthwash burn for these people and not others? The same reason why some of us are allergic to specific foods but the rest of us aren’t. [1]

You can technically say that the mouthwash is supposed to burn because of the way it works. But not all burning is normal or good. And not all mouthwashes actually burn.

Is Mouthwash Supposed To Burn? 

To a certain extent, it’s normal for mouthwash to burn or sting. Especially if it’s your first time using something with an ingredient like alcohol, chlorhexidine (in prescription mouthwash), or stronger concentrations of essential oils. But when used properly, the stinging should either go away or not be so bad that you can’t handle it.

Different formulas of mouthwash do or don’t sting your mouth. With a fluoride mouthwash, burning tongue is not normal, whereas one with alcohol (like Listerine) it is. Similarly, if you apply straight essential oils onto the inside of your lip, it will probably sting like the Dickens; but if it’s diluted in mouthwash, it likely won’t hurt at all. [2]

3 Reasons Why Your Mouthwash Burns

The three most common reasons why mouthwash burns your mouth is because of the ingredients it uses. These ingredients are what make the rinse effective, but consequently, it’s also what causes them to irritate some people’s mouths.

1. Menthol

Menthol is scientifically proven to offer antimicrobial and anticavity properties in mouthwash. It’s basically what gives your mouthwash that minty-fresh taste whenever you use it. Menthol is found in mint and peppermint plants and can give your mouth a tingly, cool sensation. It and other types of essential oils are frequently used in mouth rinse formulas both for the taste as well as the antibacterial benefits it offers.[3]

2. Alcohol

Alcohol is a natural antiseptic and also helps with maintaining a longer shelf life in products like mouthwash. Unfortunately, it can also cause your mouth to burn whenever you rinse with it, depending on how much there is. Listerine is probably one of the most easily-recognized mouthwash brands that contain alcohol in most of their mouthwash formulas. You can try using different types of commercial mouthwash from the drugstore with and without alcohol to see if certain concentrations bother your mouth more than others. Alcohol tends to dry your mouth out, so if you already have dry mouth (xerostomia), you may want to avoid using it.

 3. Chlorhexidine

Whenever someone has chronic gum disease and is undergoing a series of deep cleanings, their dentist or periodontist may prescribe a strong therapeutic mouthwash that contains chlorhexidine or “CHX” for short. Peridex and Perioguard are two common examples. These mouthwashes are usually only prescription-strength, but there are some weaker versions available that may be available over the counter, depending on where you live. Chlorhexidine mouthwash can cause some burning when used, but in most cases, it isn’t meant to use any longer than two weeks (because of the tooth stain it tends to cause.)

Is Your Mouthwash Irritating Your Mouth?

Your mouth might burn more from mouthwash if you have things going on inside of it, like:

1. Mouth Ulcers or Canker Sores

Canker sores/aphthous ulcers and cold sores/fever blisters are basically like having raw, exposed tissues in your mouth. They’re highly sensitive to anything, be it eating, drinking, or brushing your teeth. Exposing them to strong ingredients like alcohol or chlorhexidine will likely cause severe burning sensations. You may need to use something else until those areas have a chance to finally heal over.

2. Gingivitis and Gum Disease

Red, inflamed, bleeding gums are much more sensitive to stimuli, whether it be flossing, brushing, or in this case, using mouthwash. Once you get your gums healthy again through good home care and professional cleanings, they shouldn’t burn when you use mouthwash. 

3. Bleaching or Whitening Ingredients

Some types of mouthwash advertise that it contains hydrogen peroxide to help whiten teeth. 

4. Essential Oils

The burning means there is an ingredient in the mouthwash that’s causing it to “work” on bacteria. But the burning isn’t a result of the mouthwash working; it’s a side effect of irritation on your mucous membranes because of strong ingredients like peppermint oil, eucalyptus oil, or thyme oil. Don’t feel like you need to power through it, especially if the burning is unbearable. It's a nice way to control bad breath but its not worth the burning sensation. The more it burns does not equal more killing of bacteria and bad breath.

Do You Need A Mouthwash?

Technically no, you don’t “need” mouthwash as part of your daily oral hygiene routine. Dentists and hygienists will, however, tell you that brushing and flossing are an absolute must. Using mouthwash is simply an add-on to brushing and flossing to help rinse away residual loose residue, freshen breath, and combat tooth decay.

That being said, there are times when a prescription mouthwash is necessary. Including scenarios involving recurring tooth decay, dry mouth (because of the cavity risk), and active chronic gum disease. These prescription rinses often contain chlorhexidine for periodontitis or concentrated fluoride to remineralize tooth enamel. But if the mouthwash burns your mouth, your dentist can help you find an alternative option to use. It’s better to replace it with something gentler that doesn’t burn your mouth than to not use the mouth rinse at all.

Use an Alcohol-free Mouthwash

Does Listerine burn your mouth? It does for most people. Even though people who use Listerine regularly typically build up a tolerance to the mouthwash burning their mouth, other people don’t ever reach that point. Thankfully, there are effective alcohol-free formulas that are still great for your mouth. 

For example, a mouthwash that contains essential oils (Listerine also contains essential oils, by the way) but doesn’t have alcohol in it is proven to be effective against the bacteria that cause gum disease. Some people choose to purchase these types of mouth rinses or make their own by adding 3-4 drops of specific essential oils to a cup of water and rinsing with it.[4]

If your main goal is for anticavity and sensitivity purposes, an alcohol-free fluoride mouthwash is your best choice. Not all products contain fluoride, so be sure to read the labels.

Talk With Your Dentist

If your dentist prescribes a specific mouthwash and you have burning sensations or other oral health reactions whenever you use it, stop using it immediately and call your dentist’s office. It might be where they have you apply it with a cotton ball or Q-tip to specific areas instead of rinsing with it. If you think you’re experiencing an allergic reaction—such as to products with chlorhexidine in it—then do not use it.

Your dentist can either recommend another type of mouthwash that won’t burn your mouth or give you other instructions. Remember, it can be normal for mouthwash to burn your mouth to a mild extent, but nothing that’s so severe you can’t actually use it. Mild stinging is ok if you can tolerate it, but you shouldn’t have to power through something extremely painful. 

Your dentist and hygienist will help you navigate the process of choosing an alternative mouthwash that isn’t so harsh. 

Why Does Mouthwash Cause a Burning Sensation

Why does mouthwash burn? Usually, it has alcohol in it. If you have high alcohol content in your mouthwash, burning tongue or mouth reactions are common right when you use it. Is mouthwash supposed to burn? Not unless there are actually ingredients like alcohol, chlorhexidine, or strong essential oils in it and at that point only to a certain extent. If it’s an alcohol-free mouthwash or you’ve tried numerous types and still have a burning sensation, make sure to talk to your dentist. In the meantime, you might want to go with a gentler “holistic” mouth rinse, stick with one that’s specifically a fluoride mouthwash, or make your own.

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