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Antiseptic vs. Antibacterial Mouthwash: What's the Difference?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Choosing a mouthwash can be overwhelming, with many options lining store shelves. Various types of mouthwash promise different benefits like fighting cavities, antibacterial and antiseptic promise, or freshening breath.  

With all these choices, you may wonder - what's the difference between an antiseptic vs. an antibacterial mouthwash? And how do you determine which one suits your specific needs? 

 What is an Antiseptic Mouthwash?

Antiseptic mouthwashes target a broader spectrum of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They aim to reduce the overall microbial load in the mouth, helping to prevent infections and promote oral health. It contains active ingredients that specifically target and kill or inhibit oral bacteria that cause plaque, gingivitis, and bad breath. 

An antiseptic mouthwash might be a suitable option if you are looking for a general oral hygiene product to help maintain healthy gums, prevent plaque buildup, and address gum disease concerns. 

 What is an Antibacterial Mouthwash?

Antibacterial mouthwashes specifically target bacteria. They work by disrupting bacterial cell growth or inhibiting their activity, thereby reducing the bacterial population in the mouth. An antibacterial mouthwash may reduce bacterial counts and promote healing if you are dealing with an active gum infection, such as gingivitis. 

The ADA prefers antibacterial mouthwashes for their ability to target harmful oral bacteria that contribute to dental diseases specifically. 

Antiseptic vs. Antibacterial Mouthwash

When you see "antimicrobial," "antibacterial," or "antiseptic" on the label of a bottle of mouthwash, it's essential to understand that these words carry distinct meanings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines antimicrobial products as those designed to eliminate or inactivate various microbes, encompassing fungi, bacteria, parasites, and viruses.

Antibacterial agents, also known as antibiotics, are a type of antimicrobial agent specifically designed to eliminate, slow down, or inactivate bacteria. Merck Manuals explains that "antibacterial" and "antibiotic" are often used interchangeably. In the strictest sense, antibiotics are antimicrobial agents derived from bacteria or moulds rather than other microorganisms. Antibiotics are intended to treat an active infection in or on the body, as the Microbiology Society points out, and they can be administered topically or systemically.

In contrast to antibacterial agents, antiseptic products are typically applied topically to a specific body area to reduce infection risk. While antibacterial agents target bacteria specifically, antiseptic and antimicrobial agents can eliminate or inhibit a broader range of microorganisms. Consequently, antiseptic mouthwash covers a broader spectrum of organisms than antibacterial mouthwash.

So, if you come across the terms antimicrobial, antibacterial, or antiseptic on a bottle of mouthwash, rest assured that the rinse is formulated to inhibit microorganisms that could be harmful to oral health.

How Do You Choose Mouthwash?

With so many mouthwash options available, how to choose the one that is right for you? It is helpful to consult with a dental professional about using mouthwash if you feel confused. They can recommend a suitable mouthwash for specific conditions like gum disease, dry mouth, or bad breath. In some cases, a prescription antimicrobial mouthwash may be the best option.

If you're dealing with gum disease, your dental professional may suggest a chlorhexidine-based mouthwash, recommended by the American Dental Association (ADA), for its antiseptic properties in controlling plaque and gingivitis. This specialized mouthwash targets harmful bacteria, promoting gum health as part of the oral care regimen. 

As the Mayo Clinic notes, chlorhexidine eliminates the bacteria responsible for gum disease. This antiseptic ingredient works by disrupting bacterial cell membranes. Incorporating prescribed mouthwashes containing chlorhexidine into your daily routine, along with regular dental check-ups, can contribute to the effective management of gum disease and overall oral health. Using products with chlorhexidine regularly can also help maintain reductions in plaque and gingivitis.

If you have specific concerns, like reducing plaque, fighting cavities, or achieving general breath freshness, consult a dental professional for advice on the product that may help meet those goals.  It is also a good idea to look for a product with the ADA Seal of Approval, which means the product has provided scientific evidence showing both its safety and effectiveness.

If not particularly concerned with preventing gum disease, one may still benefit from using mouthwash. As outlined by the ADA, mouthwash can help improve the breath and reduce the risk of tooth decay.

Tips for Using Any Type of Mouthwash

Regardless of whether you opt for a prescription mouthwash from a dental professional or an over-the-counter product labelled as "antiseptic" or "antibacterial," specific usage guidelines should be followed. Mouthwash is not intended to substitute brushing and flossing. Continue brushing the teeth twice a day and flossing once a day. While the ADA confirms that mouthwash can be used before or after brushing (as per product instructions), never omit brushing.

Another essential thing is adhering to the instructions on the mouthwash bottle provided by the dental professional. Using the mouthwash as directed, regardless of its type, will maximize its effectiveness.

 Summing Up Key Differences

When evaluating antiseptic versus antibacterial mouthwashes, keep these main distinctions in mind:

  • Containing broad-spectrum antimicrobial ingredients effective against bacteria, viruses, and fungi, antiseptic mouthwashes offer comprehensive protection. In contrast, antibacterial mouthwashes specifically target bacteria.

  • Topically applied antiseptic products are employed to reduce the risk of infection, while antibiotics, such as those found in antibacterial mouthwash, address existing infections.

  • Beneficial for addressing gum infections, plaque buildup, and gingivitis, antiseptic mouthwashes contribute to oral health. Antibacterial mouthwashes, on the other hand, promote overall oral hygiene.

  • Prescription antiseptic mouthwashes may be needed for gum disease. Over-the-counter antibacterial mouthwashes can provide daily oral care.

While considering antiseptic vs. antibacterial mouthwashes, it's important to note their distinct uses. Both can contribute to oral health when used appropriately. Consult with your dental professional to decide which type may be suitable for your needs.