Anti-plaque, anti-gingivitis, alcohol-free — your pharmacy’s oral health section has dozens of mouth rinse products to choose from, all promising to protect your teeth and gums and freshen your breath.

But how can you know which claims are true? And do you really need to use a mouth rinse — or is good brushing and flossing enough?

“There are three major categories [of mouth rinses], from a consumer perspective,” says Michelle Henshaw, DDS, MPH and assistant dean for community partnerships and extramural affairs at Boston University, Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine. These include mouth rinse products that contain fluoride, anti-gingivitis and anti-plaque mouth rinses, and cosmetic mouth rinse products. Some of these mouth rinses are available over-the-counter; others will require a prescription.

Here’s what you should know when shopping for a mouth rinse.

Fluoride-Containing Mouth Rinses

Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by helping your body strengthen enamel — the white, harder-than-bone substance that covers teeth. But most people will not require fluoride-containing mouth rinses, says Dr. Henshaw. “You pretty much get that from your fluoridated toothpaste,” she says. But, there are some exceptions.

“People with xerostomia (abnormal dryness of the mouth) might use this kind of mouth rinse, and there are other reasons, like dental caries (cavities),” says Henshaw. Severe dry mouth can lead to a change in the bacterial balance of your mouth, while too much bad bacteria can lead to tooth decay. Fluoride mouth rinses can help prevent these problems.

Check with your dentist if you’re not using fluoride toothpaste. In this case, it might be a good idea to supplement your oral health routine with a fluoride mouth rinse.

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