Cancer Research UK plays down 'inconsistent' evidence for mouthwash cancer link

In collaboration with the Press Association

A claim by Australian scientists that alcohol-containing mouthwashes can cause oral (mouth) cancer and should be available only on prescription has been played down by Cancer Research UK.

The claims are based on a study published in the Australian Dental Journal, in which scientists reviewed research on alcohol-containing mouthwashes and found "sufficient evidence" linking them to an increased risk of mouth cancer.

But Cancer Research UK said that while drinking too much alcohol can cause mouth cancer, the evidence linking mouthwashes to the disease is inconsistent and cannot be used to draw firm conclusions.

Yinka Ebo, Cancer Research UK's health information officer, said: "The idea that alcoholic mouthwashes could increase the risk of mouth cancer makes sense, but the evidence around this link is inconsistent.

"It's important to note that mouthwash users may be more likely to have poor oral hygiene, so more research is needed to find out whether it's the mouthwash or the poor oral hygiene that increases the risk of mouth cancer."

Lead reviewer Professor Michael McCullough, associate professor of oral medicine at the University of Melbourne, believes that the ethanol in mouthwashes may allow cancer-causing substances to enter the lining of the mouth.

A by-product of alcohol called acetaldehyde may also have cancer-causing properties when it collects in the mouth.

He said: "We see people with oral cancer who have no other risk factors than the use of alcohol-containing mouthwash, so what we've done in this study is review all the evidence that's out there."

The expert, who is also chair of the Australian Dental Association's therapeutics committee, wants the association to reassess its approval of alcohol-containing mouthwashes and for them to be made available only on prescription for short-term medical use.

However, Cancer Research UK stressed that more research needs to be done before any potential risk posed by mouthwashes can be accurately assessed.

Ref: MJ McCullough and CS Farah; Dec 2008; Australian Dental Journal, Vol 53 Issue 4, p 302-305

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 MJ McCullough, CS Farah (2008). The role of alcohol in oral carcinogenesis with particular reference to alcohol-containing mouthwashes Australian Dental Journal, 53 (4), 302-305 DOI: 10.1111/j.1834-7819.2008.00070.x