Why does Listerine and other mouthwash burn?

Most of us have experienced mouthwash burn. Some people see it as a positive sign that the product is working. Others accept it as a necessary evil. But is mouthwash burn a good or bad thing, why does it happen and is it inevitable?

In short, the saying “no pain, no gain” might apply to exercise. But in terms of mouthwash, that burning sensation isn’t inevitable and may be a sign that your mouthwash is doing more harm than good. So understanding why mouthwash burn happens is vital.

The simple answer to the question: why does mouthwash burn, sting or hurt is because of the ingredients it contains. But nothing is ever that simple!

We all respond differently to products like mouthwash. We each have different tastes and tolerances. What burns you may not burn another person. This may be due to your individual constitution or your particular oral health issues.

So in this article we are going to look at:

  • Which ingredients in mouthwash may cause burn and why
  • Whether using mouthwash is good or bad for you
  • How to choose a mouthwash suitable for you that won’t burn
  • How and when to use mouthwash
  • Conclusion

Which ingredients may cause mouthwash burn?


Many traditional mouthwashes contain alcohol, usually ethanol (this is a key reason why Listerine burns). The alcohol does two jobs. It kills germs and helps to dissolve and disperse other ingredients.

These mouthwashes are known to burn or sting more.

It used to be thought that the burning sensation was due to the alcohol itself. However, the real problem is that, over time, alcohol can irritate mouth tissue and even cause sores. This then makes your mouth more sensitive to pain.

On top of that, alcohol is a desiccant. That is, it dries out the mouth. This is bad news. Saliva plays a vital role in oral health. It kills bacteria, helps to control plaque, fights bad breath and strengthens tooth enamel. It also moisturizes your mouth and helps to protect sensitive mouth tissue.

So the alcohol itself may not cause burn, but can create conditions in your mouth that make you more susceptible to pain caused by other ingredients such as essential oils.

Essential Oils

Common essential oils used in mouthwashes include wintergreen, eucalyptus and thyme oils, as well as menthol.

They are used because they have powerful and extremely effective antiseptic qualities.

But as essential oils, they are also highly concentrated.

Many carry warnings because they are so potent. Their eye-watering smells are an obvious sign that they can be an irritant. So it is not surprising that their use in mouthwashes may cause burn. Especially if they are in an alcohol solution.

As we said above, the alcohol has a drying effect and can damage delicate cells which makes your mouth more vulnerable to irritation.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is used in mouthwash as a mild antiseptic, often in place of alcohol.

However, though it has long been regarded as having healing properties, it can also cause tissue irritation in some individuals. There are concerns too that it may damage inner tooth tissues at high concentrations (over 35%) or through repeated use.

So, is mouthwash good or bad for you?

If you choose the right product, it’s definitely good for you.

Brushing alone only targets a fraction of your mouth. It doesn’t even reach the entire tooth surface, never mind the gums, tongue or mouth lining.

So, to have a clean, healthy, protected mouth, it’s vital to use other methods of cleaning to reach these areas. And that includes mouthwash.

But how do you choose the right one?  One that not only addresses your oral health needs but suits your taste and is cool in every way to use?

Choosing a mouthwash that won’t burn

The best person to help you with this is your dentist. But if you’re not due a check-up for a while, we provide some guidance and suggestions here.

First, what oral health issues are a priority for you?  There are eight to think about.  You should base your choice of mouthwash on which of them is a problem for you as most mouthwashes will target specific conditions:

  • Cavities
  • Gum disease
  • Sensitivity
  • Bad breath
  • Plaque and/or tartar build up
  • Tooth staining
  • Weak enamel
  • Dry mouth

You also need to think about other dental products you may be using. For example, if you are currently using whitening strips, you may want a mouthwash that targets staining in order to maximize results. Or you may want a mouthwash that strengthens enamel to give your teeth extra protection against the whitening agent.

Spending some time thinking about your specific oral health needs will help you to make the best purchase.

We set out some ‘no burn’ suggestions for specific conditions below.

But remember, we are all different. We have different tastes, sensitivities and tolerances. So, whilst we have recommended highly regarded products, we cannot absolutely guarantee ‘no burn’!

Table could not be displayed.

How to use mouthwash

  1. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  2. Pour the recommended amount into a container.
  3. Swish vigorously around your mouth (usually for 30-60 seconds).
  4. Then gargle to target the bacteria that lurk in the back of the mouth.
  5. Spit out into the sink.
  6. Some mouthwashes require you to rinse out with water. Others advise not to do this so that the ingredients remaining in the mouth work for longer.
  7. Try not to eat or drink for at least 10 minutes.

Should I use mouthwash before or after brushing?

Most dentists advise you wait at least an hour after brushing before rinsing with mouthwash. This is to avoid losing the anticavity benefits of fluoride which continues to protect your teeth even after brushing.

Others argue that using mouthwash prior to brushing helps to loosen and dislodge food particles and plaque. This makes brushing more effective.

The American Dental Association says that, unless a manufacturer recommends a particular order, it’s a matter of individual choice. What counts is good technique and the quality of the products you use.

The British National Health Service advice is that mouthwash shouldn’t be used immediately after brushing – even if it contains fluoride. This is because the mouthwash will wash away the more concentrated fluoride that toothpaste contains. Their advice is to use mouthwash at times when you may not have access to a toothbrush, such as after lunch.


To recap:

  • Mouthwash burn can be avoided and might be a sign that a product is doing more harm than good.
  • Certain ingredients are more likely to cause burn or create conditions in your mouth that make it more vulnerable to burn.
  • Using mouthwash is important in order to clean and treat areas your toothbrush cannot reach.
  • There are mouthwashes that are formulated to avoid burn. However, since – everyone has different tastes, sensitivities and tolerances there is no guarantee that they work for everyone.
  • There are disagreements about when to use mouthwash but if you use a fluoride toothpaste it is best not to rinse immediately after brushing.

Last update on 2021-03-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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