From time to time I am asked by a patient whether they can use salt water instead of a proprietary mouthwash as an oral disinfectant.
Here I describe the uses and relative advantages and disadvantages of the two.
Salt water mouth rinses are an excellent short term treatment when you have wounds in the mouth – for example, when you have had teeth extracted. Salt water is not only a natural disinfectant, it also reduces swelling of the tissues. It is an isotonic solution, which means that it contains the same salts and minerals as our bodies in equal concentrations. For this reason it doesn’t irritate our soft tissues and is ideal as a dental healing aid after any dental procedures. Rinsing with salt water for two to three weeks post dental surgery promotes healing, and if you have an infection or even a mouth ulcer, it works really well as a short-term measure.
Long term, however, a salt water mouth rinse disturbs the pH balance of the oral cavity, so it would cause problems if used every day over time. While it is not necessarily abrasive, the disturbance in pH could lead to softening of tooth enamel, making your teeth more susceptible to wear and more likely to develop cavities.
Mouthwashes are ideal for long-term everyday use as they are relatively neutral in pH so do not disturb the pH balance in the oral environment. However, it is important to note that not all mouthwashes are equal in terms of effectiveness and value when it comes to maintaining your oral hygiene.
Mouthwashes are only indicated for certain dental needs. The only kind of mouthwash that I recommend for daily use is one that contains a low dose of fluoride, such as NeutraFlour 220. It can aid in the prevention of cavities and in children should only be used over the ages of 6.
Certain mouthwashes may also be prescribed to stabilise gum problems. One example is Curaspet 0.05%, which also has a low dose of fluoride and chlorhexidine. It is safe to use for a longer period of time because it doesn’t result in staining of the teeth, unlike many other chlorhexidine mouth rinses.
It is important to note that many mouthwashes that are currently available contain alcohol. You are advised to use alcohol-free mouthwashes when possible as alcohol-containing products can increase the risk of mouth or oral cancer if used long term.
Before purchasing a mouthwash you should consult with your dentist as to which is best (if any at all) for your own personal situation. It is also important to remember that mouthwashes are not to be used solely on their own for maintaining oral hygiene. Mouthwashes are only meant to be an adjunct to brushing and flossing daily, and are most definitely not going to aid in prevention of plaque and cavities if used in isolation.