Why Does Listerine Burn My Mouth?

Written, Edited, and Reviewed by Dr David Chen.

The burning sensation from rinsing with Listerine is due to the alcohol and essential oils as its primary ingredients. Each of these ingredients individually contribute to the discomfort but the main culprit would be the alcohol.


Since the formulation with alcohol was intentional, it was designed to burn but it does come with beneficial effects for your mouth. However, if you can’t tolerate the intensity of the product, you can try an alternative.

Why does listerine burn so much?

Listerine burns because of the alcohol and four essential oils within it, which make up the core of its active and inactive ingredients.

Active ingredients: Essential Oils

Listerine active ingredients - essential oils
Essential Oils

Inactive Ingredients: 21.6% Alcohol

Listerine inactive ingredients


Listerine contains 21.6% alcohol by volume which is quite acidic. That makes it more alcoholic than beer (5%), craft beer, and even wine (12%). However, it contains less alcohol than a shot of hard liquor such as vodka or whisky.

standard drink alcohol content - NIH
Credit: NIH

Real life evidence of that can be palpable when you compare it to drinking beer and liquor.

  • It burns more than the beer or wine.
  • It burns less than having a shot of hard liquor.

It should come as no surprise that it’ll feel a little uncomfortable since it is quite alcoholic. Do you concur?


Eucalyptol is extracted from the Eucalyptus plant with reported adverse effects such as:

  • Sensation of mouth burning
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures

Menthol & Methyl Salicylate

The FDA does caution the use of menthol in that it can cause severe burns in rare cases. Typically these cases involved higher concentrations, 3% menthol and 10% methyl salicylate which are both greater than what is in Listerine.

Nonetheless, the presence of these two essential oils is what gives your mouth that minty tingle. The menthol comes from the mint leaf while the methyl salicylate comes from winter green. Both of which give a slight burn if you’ve ever had breath mints before.


Thymol which is derived from the thyme plant can burn when it comes into contact with your skin or oral mucosa. In fact, plenty of safety and data sheets list it as one of the hazards.

Hazard class: Skin corrosion or irritation (Category 1). Causes severe skin burns and eye damage (H314).


Is it supposed to burn?

Listerine is supposed to burn since it was purposefully formulated with alcohol and essential oils. As demonstrated above, all of these five ingredients possess a mildly discomforting characteristic. You’ll feel it burn your tongue, cheeks, lips, gums, teeth, and even the palate.

The purpose of it is to eliminate 99.9% of the germs and oral bacteria in your mouth. After all, alcohol is a potent antiseptic is it not? Although despite its intensity, it cannot kill your tooth nerve nor eliminate an infection.

Is it harmful?

The burn from rinsing with Listerine is not harmful since the sensation is only transient. It will typically go away on its own within a few minutes of using the product.

However, there has been a lot of concern about whether or not the alcohol content within Listerine could be linked to cancer.

  • One study found that there was an associated risk of using it on a daily basis with females but not males. However since it wasn’t dose dependent, they cannot attribute the casual significance of cancer to daily mouthwash use.
  • Another study found no evidence of linking mouthwash use to oral cancer.
  • A third study said that there was potential risk for head and neck cancer.
  • A fourth study said that it could be an independent risk factor for it.

According to Listerine, there is no evidence of it causing cancer.

Nonetheless, the presence of these reports were enough to scare the general public. Prior to 1991, the formulation for Listerine was actually 26.9% alcohol but they have since reduced it to 21.6% due to concerns. Of course now, they’ve come out with an alcohol free version.

Note: They’ve still kept the “original” version of their product with 26.9% alcohol. However, all of the other alcoholic products have been reduced to 21.6%.

What we think about it

Sure, alcohol has been linked to cancer and while the mouthwash does have it, we’d have to say that your weekly happy hour is certainly more harmful than using mouthwash.

When you have an alcoholic drink you’re actually ingesting the liquid. That is opposed to rinsing with mouthwash which you do not ingest but spit back out. Clearly, one is more harmful than the other.

How to reduce the burn

The best way to minimize the amount of burn from using Listerine is to switch to their alcohol-free line of products.

They’ve listened to their consumers and realized that not everyone can tolerate the intense feeling from using their alcohol based mouthwashes. Thus, they formulated a new line of products called Listerine Zero Alcohol, which does not contain any alcohol.

Listerine Zero Alcohol product line:

  • Cool Mint Zero mouthwash
  • Total care zero alcohol anticavity fluoride mouthwash
  • Ultraclean zero alcohol tartar control mouthwash
  • Zero alcohol mouthwash for fresh breath

How the zero alcohol compares to the alcohol version

We’ve used the zero alcohol version and we must say that it does feel more pleasant. It certainly burns a lot less than their original product. We do prefer this over their regular one.

It doesn’t get rid of the burn completely since it still has the essential oils within it but the amount of burn is significantly less. Therefore if you don’t like the alcohol sensation or you have low pain tolerance, perhaps you should switch to the non-alcoholic version.


Listerine will burn if you rinse with it because it has alcohol and essential oils. If you can’t handle the feeling then you can switch to their zero alcohol line of products. We personally prefer their non-alcoholic one since it feels less intense and is more comfortable to use.


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