Listerine and Biofilms: Something Old is New Again

Johnson & Johnson has recently been running television ads for Listerine Antiseptic Mouthwash touting its effectiveness about something called a “biofilm.” According to one oft-repeated spot, biofilms are made up of germs that are “strong enough to survive daily brushing.” According to the commercial, <"">Listerine can “penetrate biofilms, kill germs, and protect your mouth for up to 12 hours.”

So what are biofilms? The Listerine TV spot could lead one to believe that biofilms are some new type of scientific discovery. But in fact, when it comes to the type of biofilm that forms on teeth, something much more mundane is involved – good old-fashioned plaque. Plaque is actually a type of biofilm. But you’d never know that from watching the Listerine Antiseptic commercial, which never mentions plaque.

Earlier this year, an article posted on the Healthy Living Blog asserted that Johnson & Johnson had begun using the term “biofilm” in place of “plaque” in order to boost Listerine sales without having to reformulate their product or change its packaging.

Just last year, Johnson & Johnson was hit with a class action lawsuit over claims about the plaque fighting abilities of another Listerine product. The lawsuit alleged advertising claiming that Listerine Total Care Anticavity Mouthwash “fights unsightly plaque above the gum line” was false and misleading. According to the lawsuit, this brand of Listerine Mouthwash was heavily marketed as a 6-in-1 total solution for oral hygiene, and with representations that, as a drug, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved it for this purpose.

In fact, in September 2010, the FDA demanded that Johnson & Johnson quit making the same claims disputed by the Listerine Total Care Anticavity Mouthwash lawsuit. According to a warning letter issued by the agency, sodium fluoride, the sole active ingredient in this Listerine product, does not mitigate, prevent, or remove plaque.

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