Dear EarthTalk: Are there healthy, green-friendly mouthwashes? I’ve heard that some contain formaldehyde and other nasty substances.
— Marina Sandberg, Albany, NY
Many mainstream mouthwashes contain ingredients that you definitely don’t want to swallow, or even put down the drain. According to the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia’s (EHANS’s) “Guide to Less Toxic Products”—a free online resource designed to help consumers choose healthier, greener everyday products—conventional mouthwash is often alcohol-based, with an alcohol content ranging from 18-26 percent. “Products with alcohol can contribute to cancers of the mouth, tongue and throat when used regularly,” the guide reports, adding that a 2009 review in the Dental Journal of Australia confirmed the link between alcohol-based mouthwashes and an increased risk of oral cancers.
And you might want to avoid mouthwashes with fluoride (aka sodium fluoride). While fluoride may help fight cavities, ingesting too much of it has been linked to neurological problems and could be a cancer trigger as well. Common mouthwash sweeteners have also been linked to health problems: Saccharin is a suspected carcinogen while sucralose may trigger migraines. Synthetic colors can also be troublesome.
Some brands contain formaldehyde (aka quanternium-15). According to the National Cancer Institute, overexposure to formaldehyde can cause a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat as well as coughing, wheezing, nausea and skin irritation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers formaldehyde a “probable human carcinogen” and research has shown an association between long term workplace exposure and several specific cancers, including leukemia. Few of us are exposed to as much formaldehyde as, say, morticians, but does that mean its okay to swish it around in our mouths every day?
Other problematic ingredients in many conventional mouthwashes include sodium lauryl sulfate, polysorbate, cetylpyridinium chloride and benzalkonium chloride, all which have been shown to be toxic to organisms in the aquatic environments where these chemicals end up after we spit them out.
So what’s a concerned green consumer to do? EHANS recommends the following mouthwashes that do not contain alcohol, fluoride, artificial colors or sweeteners: Anarres Natural Candy Cane Mouthwash, Auromere Ayurvedic Mouthwash, Beauty with a Cause Mouthwash, Jason Natural Cosmetics Tea Tree Oil Mouthwash, Dr. Katz TheraBreath Oral Rinses, Hakeem Herbal Mouthwash, and Miessence Freshening Mouthwash. Besides these brands, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database also lists Tom’s of Maine Natural Baking Soda Mouthwash, Healing-Scents Mouthwash, and Neal’s Yard Remedies Lavender and Myrrh Mouthwash as least harmful to people and the environment.
You can also make your own all-natural mouthwash at home. Eco-friendly consumer advice columnist Annie Berthold Bond recommends mixing warm water, baking soda or sea salt, and a drop of peppermint and/or tea tree oil for a refreshing and bacteria-excising rinse. Another recipe involves combining distilled or mineral water with a few dashes of fresh mint and rosemary leaves and some anise seeds; mix well and swish! A quick Internet search will yield many other down-home natural mouthwash formulas.