The smell and taste of original Listerine are so distinctive that, once experienced, they can never be forgotten. Gargling with this mouthwash can’t be described as pleasant. The taste is bitter. It puckers the mouth and makes the tongue tingle. The aftertaste lingers.
For a product that has been described as tasting terrible, it is astonishing that Listerine has remained so popular for so long. It was originally developed in 1879, not as a mouthwash, but as an antiseptic for physicians to use prior to surgery. Its inventor, Jordan Lambert, named it Listerine in honor of Dr. Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery.
In 1895 the product was marketed to dentists to kill bacteria in the mouth. By 1914, Lambert and his son Gerald began offering Listerine to the public as a mouthwash, and one of America’s most enduring personal care products was launched.
Listerine has maintained its popularity in part because it tastes so distinctive. Although the company has come up with new flavors and colors, the old-fashioned amber liquid still has devotees. And we keep hearing from readers about new uses for this old patent medicine:
“Over twenty years ago, I was hiking with my nephews and one of them asked me to break a branch lying on the ground so he could use it as a walking stick. I did so, and the next day both my palms and arms were covered with a rash that itched terribly.
“A dermatologist said it was probably poison sumac. He put me on prednisone and gave me a cortisone shot. The rash spread up my arms and I suffered for about three weeks.
“Every summer thereafter, I’d break out several times during the summer months even though I hadn’t touched any sumac. He told me I could get it from the pollen, even from a mile away.
“Then I read in your column about a woman who used Listerine for her shingles. I thought, what the heck, give it a try. Imagine my surprise when the itching stopped. Within a few days the rash was gone.
“I now keep a large bottle of Listerine on hand and each time I work in the garden, I slosh it on any exposed skin and then shower. If I forget, I start itching but I use it immediately. Even if I’m starting to break out, the rash clears up in a day or two instead of the usual three weeks.
“For $4.99 I have a year’s supply that works instantly versus the $80 (plus doctor’s visit), three weeks of constant itching, blisters and slow healing that I used to go through three or four times a summer.”
Readers praise Listerine for relieving a wide variety of other skin conditions. Some tell us that full-strength Listerine massaged into the scalp can ease itchy dandruff or even psoriasis.
The combination of thymol, eucalyptol, methyl salicylate and menthol in an alcohol base may have antifungal activity. That could explain why others report that original formula Listerine works against nail fungus, athlete’s foot, jock itch and “trucker’s bottom” (whatever that is).
It’s hard to imagine how a product that has been around for so long continues to generate such loyalty and excitement. Even though the FDA has not given its blessing for these unusual uses, many people still find Listerine beneficial, despite the memorable aroma.