Tuesday, 1 September 2015

What's in a mouthwash?

If we're talking commercial mouthwash, then sometimes, some very nasty things indeed. Bottom line, in this household if can we replace a commercial product with something home made (and home grown), that's what we do. That's the subject of today's post.

Mouthwash may or may not even be necessary to good oral health, but let's face it, a lot of people enjoy how it feels.

Here's the ingredient list for Spry Coolmint Oral Rinse, one of the "better" brands, sold at most "health food stores":

See now, there's good and bad in there, for sure. Those extracts (similar to tinctures) are all made from herbs that are pretty good for oral health. I know nothing about olive leaf and have little experience with aloe vera - if I can't grow it or forage for it, I don't use it - but the others I can attest to and I'll get back to them in a minute. But I sure am getting red flags about that "Cool Mint Flavour (blend of natural flavours)"! We all know how to read labels nowadays, right? So we know that "natural flavour" is code for, well, artificial. And as these ingredients are in order of largest to smallest amounts then we know there's a lot more fake than natural in there.

Then there's the freaking ethanol, which would be why this is "Not intended to be swallowed". Look, if something is so harsh that you ought not to swallow it, I don't see how it's good for delicate tissues like gums and the tongue. No sir, I don't like it. We have to keep in mind as well that most of the time commercial "extracts" are made with ethanol too. If so, to my mind this negates any good of the herbs AND means there is more ethanol than declared on the label.

Purified Water, meh.

The jury is definitely still out on glycerine, it's a debate long hashed out on the internet. I suppose it depends on how you feel about a coating on your teeth! Although glycerine is touted as a moisturiser, I find it dries out my skin in the long term when I use a glycerine soap. It's not a terrible ingredient, I just don't happen to like it. Or want it in my mouth.

Calcium Glycerophosphate. Now there's a mouthful. Benefits? Risks? How's it made? Maybe it's fine, maybe it's not, I simply don't know. A search on pubmed offers this list of studies. Honestly, though, these sorts of studies make me cross-eyed. As this is not an ingredient I can buy over the counter in its pure form for my own N=1, (and I definitely can't forage for!) I'm going with my gut and saying it's something I can live without in my mouthwash. Another ingredient you wouldn't want to ingest regularly .

Which brings us to Xylitol. Now if you know me, you know I am not a fan of anything much that's been processed to a crystalline or powder form. But I like Xylitol. I don't ingest the stuff, although some do. I take a spoonful, let it dissolve on my tongue then swish the resulting saliva/Xylitol mix around in my mouth while I shower. Sort of like oil-pulling which I just find icky and can't do. And you know what? It's been great. Xylitol is derived from birch or corn. I prefer to get the type made from birch, for obvious reasons.

Here is a blurb about Xylitol from a site on do-it-yourself oral care. (A good thing in this world of extreme dentistry.) Don't be too put off by the exuberance of the piece, the site owner has no conflict of interest that I know of, she's just impressed. So am I. Xylitol is a very useful product. Here is a pubmed study for those who enjoy the more in-depth look and a fairly easily understood explanation of how it works.

Now speaking of dentists, many of you who read Tim Steele's blog will be familiar with Gabriella, who often participates in comment threads. (She may even be a member of the top-secret Brain Trust, but I am not party to such information.)You may not know that Gabi is a dentist - but she's not one of those dentists that we love to hate, she's a down-to-earth type who loves a good home remedy as much as I do (and that's saying something!). When the two of us were talking about the use of herbs for oral health she shared with me her remedy for all problems gum related, especially those irritations that can suddenly become acute and cause all manner of mayhem:

Put a heaping spoonful each of chamomile and sage in a cup, pour in boiling water and allow to steep until cool. Use this to rinse the mouth several times a day using the whole cup's worth each time. Don't swallow it though, warns Gabriella, it's so strong it will make you barf.

Before hearing Gabi's remedy, I was working on a recipe for mouthwash loosely based on the ingredients in the Spry rinse above. My husband has always enjoyed a fresh mouth (don't we all); he kind of liked the taste of the Spry but he certainly didn't like the stinging sensation. I'd been thinking of basing my recipe on tinctures and initially hoped for something that would keep as well on the counter as commercial brands. But I didn't like the idea of the high level of alcohol required for preservation - or the sheer volume of my precious tinctures we'd go though using it every day. They're expensive to make and even with the wide open spaces I have to forage in, I have a limited supply of herbs! Thus were born the herbal tea rinses we've been using for several months now.

There are many, many herbs that are soothing, cleansing and will keep the gums in tip top shape*. As teas, these won't sting and they are perfectly safe to gargle with or swallow. I've used herbs fresh from the garden and some are ordinary culinary herbs from the kitchen.

I generally make them up in the evening before I do the dishes. I put the kettle on, go out to the garden while it comes to a boil and pick what looks good that evening. Just to give you an idea (please, be creative!), here are some the things I've tried so far:

Red clover blossoms, nettle leaves (picked young), calendula blossoms, roses, and mint are all delightful; they leave the mouth feeling clean and fresh. Each of these have their specific talents of course, which I'll cover individually in other posts.

Sage, thyme, and rosemary are medicinal tasting, although still very "good", not exactly pleasant, especially the rosemary but that may just be me. I did notice better saliva flow after using rosemary, which was interesting. I detest the taste of chamomile, but I will try it if I have an emergency, per Gabi.

Plantain feels astringent but soothingly so. Although somewhat bitter (with an underlying sweet), I enjoy it. It's has complex flavours, as the wine people would say.

Mallow (both leaf and flower), is very moistening, great for a dry mouth as is violet leaf. Better, I find, than rosemary. The latter stimulated saliva flow but the mallows and violets are moistening like a good face cream is, if you understand my drift.

Parsley just tastes far too "green" for my liking, although it undoubtedly would be healthy enough. Lovage was awful and so was yarrow, blech! Again, that may be a matter of taste, and a more gentle yarrow may be fine; yarrow is so variable. Mine is growing in amongst the nettles this year and the power of this batch tells me yes, it's true what "they say" about nettles enhancing the plants around them. Now that I mention it, yarrow has a reputation of doing the same, and those are the most kick-ass nettles I've ever seen.

I have yet to try echinacea blossoms, so I can't report there. I have, in the past, used a decoction of the root. The taste is salty and earthy and it is wonderfully healing, especially combined with goldenseal (which is very bitter), for abscesses. If you haven't done so yet, please read my take on echinacea here when you get a chance.

Some barks are useful too, particularly oak, which is very astringent. I found it to be too much for regular care but in cases of extreme gingivitis it is the go-to of many herbalists (along with care of the whole body, of course, as everything is connected).

Other herbs which I have yet to use this season but will, include: goldenrod flowers, raspberry leaves, strawberry leaves .. come to think of it, there are too many to list here.

See? Endless possibilities.

My goal here is not to kill bacteria as commercial brands do, but to encourage a nice balance in our mouths. The mouth has a microbiome too, although no one seems to know much about it (yet). I've been fascinated lately to learn that all plants have their endophytes, and my hunch is that just as they're good for our guts and the rest of our bodies they may well offer benefits here. How? No idea. Can I back this up with studies? Nope, sorry, like I say, it's a hunch.

Nevertheless, we know these plants all have a history of being good for the mouth and as someone who has suffered all my life from the handiwork of one bad dentist, (long story, I could probably have sued if I hadn't been just a child) I'm all for things that are good for my mouth.

I use a litre sized jar and put in a combination of plant materials, slightly shredded. I like to use a base of a little sage, a little mint, and then whatever strikes my fancy. Not much, maybe a tablespoon's (or two) worth altogether. Last time it was a hint of sage, a sprig of mint, a few red clover blossoms and the petals of one white rose. Lovely. Occasionally I add a teaspoon of salt, it works with some flavours, not with others. I add water "just off the boil" (I want to steep, not cook the herbs), screw on a lid and leave it to steep until morning. I strain it and transfer it into a nicely shaped bottle which we keep by the bathroom sink. We use it generously; when we rinse after brushing or to swish after a snack. This amount lasts the two of us for about 48 hrs, usually with some left over. After 48 hrs, it needs to be thrown away. So far, it seems refrigeration hasn't been necessary.

I've mentioned this to a few people and been asked "isn't that a pain in the butt to do?" I don't see it that way. Whether wandering in the garden to pick the flowers and leaves or using what is in the kitchen cupboard, it really doesn't seem like work to me. In fact it's a rather charming thing to do, using flowers in place of the harsh concoctions on offer from Big Herb or Pharm. Besides, how taxing is it to boil water, really?

I have considered pre-mixing the herbs (dried, of course) and I've toyed with the idea of making these mixtures available for sale, too. Alas, this is a very humid summer and as a result my supply of dried herbs is meagre. But do try this for yourself, they are all easy to find or grow.

If you have a do-it-yourself trick or two for oral health, please share!

* Of course, as with anything to do with health, I believe good fresh food, sunshine and rewarding work are The Most Important Factors.


  1. I go out and pick about 6 leaves of Holy Basil. Love the taste and it leaves a fresh feeling in your mouth. Sure wish Gabi was my dentist!

    1. Nice! thanks for passing that one on.

      Yeah Gabi needs to become a travelling dentist.

  2. What do you use for toothpaste?

    1. It varies. We do have a tube of Green Beaver (awful name, eh?) that's not too bad but it rarely gets used. Mostly I dip my brush either in the herbal mix or salt water. A good soft brush and an interdental brush do the trick for me. Gabi is on at me to use a waterpik, still on a learning curve with that.

      In other words, toothpaste is being phased out here.

  3. Waterpik and flossing or just waterpik? I use a mixture of baking soda and coconut oil.

    1. Personally, I have such crooked teeth that flossing is only possible for one or two spots. hence the interdental brush and the waterpik.

      Wow, that mixture of yours is interesting.

  4. I made a sage infusion a few days ago to use as mouthwash. It has been in the fridge for a few days. I transfer some into a small jar, dilute it with water and add some salt into it. Just enough amount to use daily.
    How long can I keep the infusion in the fridge for before it goes bad? The taste is very strong, bites your tongue, which I like. Not sure if it would have a distinct off taste after a while?

    1. Uh-oh, I don't know the answer to that one. It's my understanding that sage keeps for a very long time. More than once I have a found jar of the stuff in the back of my fridge of indeterminate age, with no signs of having gone 'off'.

      That said, fresher is probably better.

      Ah - a quick search tells me Susun Weed says in the link below that "The undiluted infusion keeps for weeks refrigerated."