Bad breath - another chief concern of mouthwash users - is also caused, in the main, "by bacteria living on food particles and fluids in the mouth," says dentist and radio dental agony aunt, Jacinta Yeo, the expert on our panel.
However, if all you're looking for is a fresh-feeling mouth then there is a wash out there for you. But which one?
Our expert Jacinta Yeo provided technical advice for the panel which was made up of sporadic mouthwash users (Amelia Cowdrey, Andrew Simpson, Duncan Fowlie, Claire Blezard, Rachel Thackray and Louisa Rogers) plus one daily user, Mort Hudson.
The panellists tried each of the products and looked for a pleasant-tasting mouthwash which gave them fresh breath and a clean-feeling mouth.
***LISTERINE ANTISEPTIC MOUTHWASH
This was the only brand which Jacinta Yeo felt she could recommend, since it is one of only two mouthrinses accredited by the BDA (the other being Colgate Plax). Listerine was hailed as a classic mouthwash by testers - but the majority felt that it was a penance to rinse with. "This is firewater," said Rachel Thackray. "If you can get through that five minutes of pain when your mouth is smarting, then it does make it feel clean and fresh." A similarly tortured Claire Blezard asked whether Listerine is "the stuff drinkers keep in the car to swig when they're about to be stopped by the police?" Listerine is certainly capable of killing strong smells (for "up to four hours" according to the packaging), as Mort Hudson testified; he is a smoker and long-term user. "I rather like it. You do get used to the strength of flavour," he said. Yet Louisa Rogers memorably summed up the Listerine experience as "the oral equivalent of leg waxing - terrible at the time, but you feel the effects will last." Some rival manufacturers claim that pure alcohol in mouthwash, which is largely what gives Listerine its zing, can increase the risk of oral cancer, but BDA tests have concluded that there is no evidence of this.
**NEAL'S YARD REMEDIES LAVENDER & MYRRH MOUTHWASH
Panellists who knew about Neal's Yard products enthused about this mouthwash (which has to be diluted in water). in anticipation. However Jacinta Yeo said: "Myrrh has been used since Biblical times for mouth ulcers and inflamed gums, but how much and how often I'm not certain. But this tastes dreadful." Claire Blezard found it "difficult to mix with water" and "terribly floral - a bit over the top". Other testers also confessed that they couldn't be bothered to mix it and protested that it doesn't make your mouth feel fresh. "It smells lovely," said Rachel Thackray, "but not to gargle with."
Promoted as endowing fresh breath confidence for up to 18 hours and essential "for those who want to be a snogging success ..." Dentyl pH comes in clove (purple) or mint (green) flavour; it is an oil and water emulsion, mixed by vigorous shaking of the bottle. "It looks nice when the water and oil are separate," said Amelia Cowdrey, "but repulsive when mixed." This visual flaw though, is as nothing in comparison with the mouthwash's piece de resistance. When you spit, you "see" the bacteria in strings in your sink (an anti-bacterial solution in the mouthwash apparently "absorbs, lifts and expels oral bacteria and debris while you rinse"). It was developed at Tel Aviv University and is said to be the only mouthwash that you can actually see working. Testers, however, were not impressed. "How gimmicky is this?" protested Duncan Fowlie, who disliked the "oil slick" left on his lips. Rachel Thackray agreed: "I don't need to see something working to be persuaded that it does. It's digusting to see all that horrid stuff in the sink." Dentyl pH contains sorbitol (artificial sweetener) and Amelia Cowdrey complained about its synthetic taste: "and the clove tastes nothing like cloves." Only Mort Hudson and Claire Blezard were mildly amused by the product. "I don't like mint normally, but this is quite pleasant, not too strong," said the latter. "The trouble is, I couldn't see the 'debris' in my coloured sink. I guess it's for people with white bathrooms."
**POSTLETHWAITE'S HERBAL MOUTHWASH
pounds 5.40/100ml tincture
Made up by medical herbalist James Postlethwaite, and sold in plain, brown glass bottles, this herbal mouthwash is a concentrated preparation of alcohol and water which has to be dropped into water with its own pipette. It contains "traditional herbs" (including thyme and peppermint) which have a natural antibacterial effect. Amelia Cowdrey found it "very sour-tasting". Andrew Simpson described it as "refreshing, but medicinal. It left my mouth feeling as if I'd eaten a large quantity of rhubarb." Jacinta Yeo felt it didn't taste much like a mouthwash. "Some of its ingredients can be used for sore throats, mouth ulcers and so on," she said, "but how are the doses decided?" Other testers liked Postlethwaite's mouthwash, but as Rachel Thackray said, "life's too short to count 30 drops into a glass. Why can't it just say a teaspoonful or a cap?"
*NELSON'S HYPERCAL SPRAY
pounds 4.95/50ml tincture
Pressed to come up with a homoeopathic mouthwash, Nelson's pharmacy recommended tincture of Hypercal, a mixture of hypericum and calendula often prescribed as an antiseptic for cuts and sores. Even after being diluted in water the tincture still had a bitter taste, described by Claire Blezard as "just vile. With everything else on the market, who's going to put up with this?" Duncan Fowlie did. "I had a mouth ulcer, so I sprayed it on neat for a few days," he reported. "But I don't know if it helped." Jacinta Yeo said: "Hypericum is meant to promote healing, but I'd like to see some scientific studies." Other panellists complained about the taste and said it failed the first criterion - to make your mouth feel fresh.
*DESERT ESSENCE TEA TREE
pounds 2.50/125 ml
The oddly bland Desert Essence Tea Tree mouthwash comes in a small, transparent plastic bottle of clear liquid, which struck testers as "very foamy", "disappointing" and leaving "a disgusting, sour aftertaste". As Rachel Thackray said: "It's a bit 1950s, like Dettol. It's horrible so you feel it'll do you good." Claire Blezard "quite liked it" and Jacinta Yeo said, "Tea Tree could help kill bacteria, but this product is expensive and, as far as I know, unproven." Other testers also noticed the cost: "According to directions, you take eight swigs and then it's gone," said Duncan Fowlie. "Crikey."
The overwhelming winner of our survey was this pale green mouthwash which contains extract of Salvadora persica, a bush grown in Africa and known locally as "the toothbrush tree" - twigs from it are used to clean the teeth. (It was referred to as "a miracle plant" by the Journal of Dental Practice in 1990; when chewed, the chemical substances found in the plant dissolve and remove tartar and other dental deposits.) Most of the panellists were enthusiastic about Sarakan's effects (not to mention the simple bottle with childproof, drink-from cap). "I've always used this one and I really like it," said Claire Blezard. Duncan Fowlie mused: "It has a lovely flavour, not bitter or sweet, with a faint aftertaste of geraniums." In fact the mouthwash is supposed to be used before brushing, to help soften plaque. But Jacinta Yeo recommended using it "sparingly and after brushing".
Hypercal from Nelson's mail order on 0171 495 2404; Listerine and Dentyl pH from chemists and supermarkets nationwide; Desert Essence Tea Tree from Holland & Barrett or call 0800 146 215; Postlethwaite's Herbal from health food stores; Sarakan from Holland & Barrett or call Arrowmed on 01420 544 424. Jacinta Yeo's surgery is at 40 Harley Street, London Wl, 0171 580 5954. !