The Best Mouthwash
Most mouthwash offers a standard set of benefits, wiping out the bacteria that produce plaque and bad breath, strengthening tooth enamel, and improving gum health. If you are looking for an all-purpose mouthwash that accomplishes all of the above, plus makes you feel like you just took a sip from a melting polar ice cap, go with our favorite, Colgate Total Daily Repair. If you are coming to mouthwash with a more specific end-goal in mind, check out our top picks for cutting plaque, snuffing out bacteria the all-natural way, lifting tooth surface stains, and moisturizing dry mouth.
With both anticavity and antibacterial power, our top pick services all the most common oral concerns. Go to your next dentist appointment confident that you have been preventing cavities and controlling bacteria growth. We loved its classic, tingly mint flavor.
ACT Advanced Care
If your dentist has alerted you to plaque issues, or you’ve noticed sticky brown build up at your gum line, it’s time to get serious with a powerful dose of plaque-killing cetylpyridinium. Our anti-plaque pick comes in a sweet peppermint rinse with a strong burning effect that had our testers divided -- you either love it or hate it.
When it comes to fighting bacteria and plaque, you have two options: cetylpyridinium or essential oils. Both are effective, only essential oils comes from plants, not a lab. If you are willing to pay for purity, this gentle, herbal mouthwash actively reduces bacteria and freshens breath.
Crest 3D White Diamond Strong
Clinically proven to lighten teeth, this whitening solution uniquely contains fluoride to make your teeth both beautiful and strong. We couldn’t get enough of its flavor, akin to an after-dinner buttermint.
Biotène Dry Mouth Oral Rinse
With lubricating ingredients that help battle dryness, this formula also offers fluoride -- especially important in cavity-prone dry mouths. Its spicy aftertaste reminded us of cloves.
The Best Mouthwashes
Mouthwash is no replacement for brushing and flossing. The dentists we spoke with stressed that it’s an adjunctive treatment — it provides an additional round of pampering for your mouth but can never replace a toothbrush. In fact, Dr. Hosan Park, a periodontist in Seattle, noted that he rarely recommends mouthwash to patients who already have good oral hygiene routines with no sign of other oral diseases.
That said, mouthwash is uniquely capable of reaching nooks and crannies that you’d be hard-pressed to hit with your toothbrush. Since your teeth only constitute about 25% of your mouth’s total surface area, mouthwash can help make the other 75% a less hospitable environment for bacteria and bacteria-induced problems like plaque and bad breath.
Looking for a general boost to your oral health? The dual cavity protection and bacteria control of Colgate Total Daily Repair stands out. With fluoride to support tooth strength and counteract decay, plus cetylpyridinium to tamp down on bacteria growth, it checks all the most essential boxes. We recommend Colgate Total Daily Repair for everyone — but if you’re trying to tackle other, more specific issues, look to the targeted active ingredients of our other picks.
If you’re specifically concerned with plaque, we suggest either our Anti-Plaque pick ACT Advanced Careor our Natural pick, Nature’s Answer PerioBrite, and here’s why. Their respective ingredients — cetylpyridinium and essential oils — both arrest bacteria growth, killing plaque and freshening breath as a result. The potency of the two ingredients is equal; it comes down to personal preference whether you opt for a tried-and-true drugstore brand or a natural alternative.
ACT Advanced Care utilizes cetylpyridinium, which comes in close second to prescription-only chlorhexidine in its plaque-inhibiting power. While the mouthwash burn it imparts proved controversial amongst our testers, the intense menthol profile is one that many positively associate with old-school mouthwash.
Nature’s Answer PerioBrite made it to the top of all the natural rinses we tested thanks to its full arsenal of nine essential oils, including the ones routinely flagged in medical research as most efficacious in quelling bacteria — peppermint in particular. And all that herbal goodness comes through in its flavor, which testers loved.
We also considered two other common issues: whitening teeth and treating dry mouth. If a whiter smile is on your agenda, Crest 3D White Diamond Strong boasts both whitening and anticavity properties. It contains the hydrogen peroxide levels necessary to lighten surface stains on your teeth alongside fluoride to keep them strong. For those searching for relief from dryness, Biotène Dry Mouth Oral Rinse comes stocked with moisturizing ingredients like aloe and sugar alcohols. Our testers were also pleasantly surprised by its spicy, tingly flavor.
How We Found the Best Mouthwash
Mouthwashes make all sorts of grand claims, promising everything from “total protection” to dazzling white teeth, so we set out to find which of these promises held water. We began by pulling all the products we could find from “best of” lists on Men’s Health, Real Simple, and Lifehacker, plus popular mouthwashes from retailers like Walgreens and Amazon. In all, we began with a list of 99 mouthwashes.
We removed any mouthwashes that contained alcohol.
Alcohol aids in mouthwash’s antiseptic powers, but plenty of other ingredients can play the same antibacterial role. Its most noticeable function is just to give your mouthwash the tingly bite that seems to signal a thorough clean. This is akin to the lather of shampoo — lather doesn’t do hair any extra good (and actually means that rough detergents are at work) but it sure seems like it’s working.
Similarly, alcohol dries out your mouth, which paradoxically promotes bad breath. In other words, the more often you use an alcohol-based mouthwash, the more likely you are to feel like you need mouthwash. Dr. Rubecca Shahid, also of Seattle’s Bright Now Dental, told us that she recommends alcohol-free mouthwash to her patients due to this potential drying. So we cut any mouthwash that included it — which knocked much of Listerine’s product line from the running right out of the gate.
Then we looked for targeted ingredients to treat common oral problems.
While some ingredients — like alcohol — are always bad, deciding which ingredients are “good” depends on what you want your mouthwash to do. After looking through our remaining ingredient lists, we divided the rest of our mouthwash into five categories, each relying on different active ingredients and targeting different oral needs.
Note that we considered most of our contenders for more than one category. You’ll see each show up multiple times in the lists below.
Best Cavity Protection Mouthwash
The number one active ingredient in mouth health is fluoride, which means it’s mandatory for any excellent all-purpose rinse. Fluoride helps patch the tiny holes in tooth enamel that are left behind by acid-producing bacteria. Undisturbed, this acid eventually dissolves your tooth enamel, leaving it vulnerable to cavities and further decay. No other ingredient can best fluoride’s anticavity and enamel-strengthening functions (which is why all toothpastes also contain this ingredient). For this category, we cut any mouthwashes that didn’t contain it.
Best Anti-Plaque Mouthwash
While cavity protection reigns supreme in oral care, it’s not the only thing a mouthwash can help with. Formulas that target plaque rely on a different active ingredient: cetylpyridinium chloride. Cetylpyridinium is one of just three ingredients ingredients considered both “safe and efficacious” in the treatment of plaque and gum disease. (The others are stannous fluoride, which shows up only in toothpaste, and essential oils, which figures in our other anti-plaque option, Best Natural.) We cut any products without this ingredient — as well as any formulas that contained less than the dentist-recommended 0.07% concentration.
Best Natural Mouthwash
For this category, we looked for formulas that relied solely on essential oils, cutting products with any other active ingredients. These all-natural mouthwashes won’t help against cavities, but they’re surprisingly efficacious against plaque and gum disease. Studies that pit essential oils against fiercer-sounding chemicals like cetylpyridinium chloride have found that the oils are equally or even more effective. The only drawback is that these brands are often a little harder to track down and a little more expensive: Our top natural picks range from $11 to $15, while most other finalists fall in the $4 to $6 range.
Best Whitening Mouthwash
We required our whitening mouth rinses to include either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide. These ingredients oxidize stains — lifting and lightening the remnants of substances like coffee and red wine that build up on your teeth. Fair warning: whitening mouthwash won’t help against general yellowing. If your pearly whites are in need of heavy-duty assistance, you’ll be better off with a dedicated tooth whitening product.
For this category, we cut mouthwash that contains cetylpyridinium: While this ingredient is a powerful plaque fighter, it occasionally leaves mild (reversible) stains on teeth. Probably not what you want from a whitening wash.
Best Mouthwash for Dry Mouth
Dry mouth or xerostomia can result from many factors, including age, illness, and medication, and besides being uncomfortable, lack of saliva encourages bacteria growth. To treat dry mouth, we only considered products that contained effective humectants like aloe vera, xylitol, and sorbitol. In clinical tests, aloe demonstrates anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antibacterial properties, and can help heal any wounds in the mouth resulting from dry, cracked tissue. Xylitol and sorbitol, both sugar alcohols, have been shown to stimulate saliva flow.
Next, we weeded out duplicate products.
As we sorted through ingredient lists, we learned many mouthwash brands offer multiple formulas that are basically identical: The only difference between Crest Pro-Health Advanced Mouthwash with Extra Deep Clean and Crest Pro-Health Advanced Active Strengthening Mouthwash is that one includes water and the other doesn’t. The active ingredients are the same.
So for each of our five categories, we hand-selected one popular product apiece from well-known brands like Crest and ACT, also including highly reviewed niche offerings from brands like TheraBreath and The Natural Dentist.
Then we swished and gargled with our finalists.
We wanted to find products that we liked enough to use on a daily basis. After all, no matter how many great ingredients your mouthwash has, if you don’t like the experience, the bottle will sit in purgatory in your medicine cabinet.
To test our contenders, we swished with each mouthwash’s recommended dose for one minute (about the maximum recommended time). We then gave each an hour and a half to linger in our mouths, clearing our palates for the next mouthwash flight with plain crackers and swigs of water.
We asked these questions about each finalist:
- How was the flavor? By and large, mouthwash comes in variations of mint. Our taste receptors interact with mint in the same way that they interact with cold, which explains that wonderful chill we get from most oral care products. But not all mint is created equal: Overly artificial, bitter, or intensely sweet formulas tended to get low marks from our testers.
- Did the mouthwash burn? Turns out, alcohol isn’t the only ingredient that will leave your mouth stinging. We compared the intensity of our finalists (third degree burn or peppermint tingle?) and, knowing that different people prefer different experiences, we made sure our finalists represented a range of strengths.
- What did our mouths feel like post-gargle? We didn’t expect any long-term fresh-breath miracles — drinking coffee is probably going to overpower mint — but we did expect a happy mouth immediately after. A surprising number of mouthwashes left us with an oily residue, a bitter aftertaste, or with so much numbness we felt prepped for surgery.
- Did expensive, gimmicky products actually perform better? We looked closely at products with a lot of razzle dazzle, finding that most mouthwashes claiming cutting-edge technology had the same old ingredients, plus more Blue 6. One of the worst offenders: Colgate Total Advanced Health, a mouthwash that separates into two-tone layers, blue and glittery green. It must be shaken in order to “activate.” The only innovation testers noticed was the mouthwash’s tendency to separate back out into oily blobs after they spit it out in the sink.
Colgate Total Advanced Health must be shaken to “activate” its two distinct layers, but they quickly settle and separate again.
Our Picks for the Best Mouthwash
Best for Cavity Protection
For an anticavity mouthwash, Colgate Total Daily Repair came out on top in our testing. Like most mouthwashes in this category, it contains a mid-range concentration of fluoride, clocking in at 0.02%. At this concentration, you would be in the clear to rinse twice daily without exceeding the dentist-recommended max (too much fluoride, though not a rampant problem, can lead to cosmetic issues like fluorosis.) It also contains a small amount of cetylpyridinium for help against plaque.
Our testers described Colgate’s mint flavor as mild and refreshing, with a slight tang that gets more intense after the first 30 seconds. Our testers preferred this to options like Crest ProHealth Advanced, which got dinged for being “very sweet” and “artificial-tasting.” Colgate also has staying power, with a noticeably clean aftertaste that we continued to catch traces of a full hour and a half after swishing. “I could see myself actually using this,” one tester noted. ACT Total Care, by comparison, left our mouths feeling clean but had a somewhat bitter aftertaste that testers didn’t care for. We also tried Listerine’s single alcohol-free formula, Listerine Total Care Zero Alcohol, but one tester complained that it left her tongue feeling “uncomfortably raw.”
We also appreciated how easy Colgate’s bottle was to hold — again unlike ACT, whose flimsy plastic bottle sent a volcano of mouthwash erupting over the counter when we tried to pick it up (twice!).
Colgate Total Daily Repair is a fairly gentle rinse; if you prefer a mouthwash with more bite, we’d suggest our runner-up.
We also enjoyed Arm & Hammer Truly Radiant Bright & Strong, which comes with similar stats but a different flavor profile. In addition to its 0.02% fluoride, this mouthwash contains baking soda — Arm & Hammer’s original claim to fame — which gives the mouthwash a faint saline undertone that we found refreshing. More than that, research suggests baking soda is an effective tool against bad breath.
A tingling mint flavor predominates, which testers described as clean and delightful, with one noting, “it’s a good option if you want a mouthwash that packs a slight punch but won’t leave your eyes watering.” This helped it stand out against CariFree CTx3 Fluoride Rinse, which was so strong that one tester reported it as “searing.” We liked Arm & Hammer’s bottle, too, which features a longer neck than most of the bottles we looked at and allowed us to pour without sloshing out more than we wanted.
Best for Anti-Plaque
If you’re battling plaque, ACT Advanced Care Plaque Guard is our pick. A big name in oral care, ACT offers an entire army of mouthwashes with fairly tiny ingredient variations; Advanced Care caught our attention for its high concentration of cetylpyridinium chloride (0.07%) and its exhilarating flavor — a sweet peppermint that quickly begins to scorch.
ACT is perfect if you like a mouthwash that packs a punch. Testers noted that all of our cetylpyridinium-based finalists had a noticeable burn, but there is a line between intense and unbearable. We preferred ACT far and away over other top options like Crest Clinical ProHealth, which one tester complained made her mouth feel uncomfortably raw and another reported “I had to spit it out early.”
Note that Plaque Guard is available both with and without alcohol, so check the label to make sure you’re getting the alcohol-free version before you buy to avoid drying out your mouth.
We found cetylpyridinium-based mouthwash to have a stronger burn than other formulas. If you want to fight plaque but are looking for something a little milder, we’d suggest one of our natural mouthwash picks.
Another top contender in this category, Philips Sonicare BreathRX contains a similar concentration of cetylpyridinium (0.075%), though its formula is slightly more viscous due to its coconut oil-derived compounds.
Some testers enjoyed its soothing mouth feel but others complained it came across as oily. Still, BreathRX provides an interesting alternative to the normally water-thin texture of mouthwash. It’s also a good choice if you want an anti-plaque wash that’s not as sweet as ACT. Testers described Philips’ mint flavor as “pretty minimal,” though note that it offers a similarly intense burn that continues to build the longer you swish.
This mouthwash also can claim stronger bad breath control than its peers due to its unique inclusion of moisturizing and antibacterial extras like zinc, sugar alcohols, and essential oils. You do pay a little more for these additions — BreathRX retails around $10 for 16 ounces, twice as much as the majority of our finalists.
Best Natural Mouthwash
Natural mouthwashes are just as effective as their cetylpyridinium-containing equivalents at controlling bacteria. That’s because they employ essential oils with strong antimicrobial properties that work to kill or inhibit the bacteria that cause plaque and bad breath. For our natural pick, we wanted a product that derived its antibacterial power straight from the most effective of these essential oils, like peppermint, cinnamon, clove, and thyme.
Nature’s Answer PerioBrite surpassed our expectations with a blend of nine different oils, including peppermint, cinnamon and clove. It tastes like mint, but its inclusion of calendula, chamomile, and echinacea extracts (all of which boast their own antiviral and anti-inflammatory benefits) adds herbal undertones that testers praised for tasting less artificial-sugary than our other picks.
In addition to relying on the antibacterial power of essential oils, we also wanted our all-natural pick to be free of synthetic colors: The lack of dye means this mouthwash has a deep golden shade rather than the usual blue-green. The formula’s herbal flavor is mild, but we did notice a post-swish tingle along our gums that came not from mint, but from the mildly analgesic qualities of the clove oil.
Other Natural Mouthwashes to Consider
We also really liked Oxyfresh Lemon-Mint Power Rinse. This pick combines mild mint with a soft citrus note. It doesn’t have quite as many herbal extras as Nature’s Answer, but it does boast a range of citrus-based essential oils, like orange and grapefruit, that disinfect and refresh breath.
If you’re looking for an even more radical departure from mint, we’d suggest checking out Young Living Thieves Fresh Essence Plus Mouthwash, which tastes intensely of cloves and cinnamon. Some found its slightly oily appearance off-putting (one tester compared it to “thin, runny orange juice”) but others appreciated its novel flavor and texture.
Best Whitening Mouthwash
If whitening is your primary goal, be aware that there’s a limit to what mouthwash can accomplish. Dr. Park told us that professional tooth whitening procedures rely on highly concentrated levels of peroxide, up to 35 percent. “Low concentrations might not make a significant clinical difference,” he warned.
But studies suggest even low doses of peroxide do help slightly. One 2015 study found that whitening mouthwashes resulted in noticeably lighter teeth over a two-month span, though a dedicated whitening gel had far stronger results.
One of the mouthwashes utilized in this study was our very own top pick, Crest 3D White. We tested Crest 3D White Diamond Strong, the most highly rated member of the Crest 3D White line on Amazon. It gets its whitening power from a 1.5% peroxide concentration, and it contains the same percentage of fluoride as our anti-cavity pick (0.02%). It’s a good idea to double-down on fluoride while whitening, as peroxide lifts stains by penetrating into teeth. There is controversy over whether peroxide weakens tooth enamel, but Crest 3D allows you to play it safe.
Crest was also far and away the best-tasting whitening option we tried, with one reporting it as “sweet but refreshing.” During our gargling session, a sensitive-mouthed swisher experienced slight tooth sensitivity, but of the three whitening mouthwashes we sampled, she reported that Crest 3D was the least potent offender. If you’re prone to sensitive teeth but dead set on lightening them, dentists suggest incorporating a sensitivity toothpaste (containing potassium nitrate) into your oral care regime two weeks prior to whitening.
Best Mouthwash for Dry Mouth
Apart from being unpleasant, dry mouth (or xerostomia) endangers your oral health. Saliva is the original mouthwash, carrying away food particles and naturally cleansing with its antimicrobial properties. Without it, your mouth can turn acidic, damaging tooth enamel.
Most of the dry mouth rinses we tested contained the enzymes and moisturizing sugar alcohols needed to boost saliva. Biotène Dry Mouth Oral Rinse stood out because it also contains fluoride, which aids in preventing cavities — a constant concern in a dry, acidic environment.
While Bioténe Dry Mouth Oral Rinse is marketed as “fresh mint,” testers described it as a mild cinnamon rinse with a more viscous feel than typical mouthwash. They noted that after swishing with Bioténe’s viscous solution their mouths felt exceptionally smooth, as though coated with a thin layer of oil — likely to be a draw if you’re battling dryness.
The one potential drawback is that this product had the strongest numbing effect of all the mouthwashes we tried, leaving our mouths tingling for several minutes post-rinse. (“I can’t feel my tongue,” reported one tester.)
If that sounds a little too intense, we also really liked TheraBreath Dry Mouth Oral Rinse, which imparts a noticeable cooling sensation that started to zing right before we spit, but has less of a numbing, tingling after-effect. It’s a milder mouthwash that contains all the most beneficial ingredients: aloe, xylitol, and sorbitol, but unlike our top pick, it doesn’t contain fluoride.
Did You Know?
Diet strongly impacts oral health.
Sugary, starchy foods, from candy to bread, can create an acidic environment in your mouth that’s paradise to plaque bacteria. When food debris of this kind is left undisturbed, the bacteria chow down, depositing acid as they work — which quickly begins eroding tooth enamel and making way for cavities.
There are also foods that are actually beneficial to the health of your teeth, namely those that contain calcium and phosphorous, like dairy, meats and fish. However, even nutrient-rich foods leave debris for bacteria to feast on and so should always be followed up with a brush, floss, and rinse routine.
Mouthwash for your kids probably isn’t a good idea.
Both of the dentists we interviewed said they do not recommend that children under twelve use mouthwash. Good brushing and flossing habits need to be ingrained at a young age, and it’s too easy for mouthwash to become a replacement. “I really emphasize flossing from an early age rather than advising the use of mouthwashes,” Dr. Shahid told us.
There’s also a higher risk of children swallowing mouthwash, whether accidentally or on purpose. That bubblegum flavor may be hard to resist, but mouthwash contains plenty of potent ingredients that can be harmful to thin stomach tissues.
Looking for other ways to tackle bacteria? Consider tongue scraping.
Widely recommended in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine, U-shaped metal scrapers allow you to manually remove the sulphur-producing bacteria that builds on the back third of the tongue. If you ever need visual proof of a smelly mouth, check out your tongue in a mirror. That white biofilm gathering on its surface is directly responsible for bad breath.