How Brown Listerine Became America’s Most Trusted Health Product

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It’s not pretty, and it’s not sweet, but people love it.

The modern drugstore is a land of rainbows. The perky pink of Pepto-Bismol. The soothing green of NyQuil. From aisle to aisle, peppy purples and rootin’-tootin’ reds promise fresh this and happier that.

But lest anyone be lulled into thinking it’s all fun and games, a familiar whiskey-colored face is still there to remind us that it’s still about killing germs.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the product America trusts with its dirtiest jobs: Listerine.

Specifically, the brown stuff. Official name: Listerine Original Anti­septic Mouthwash. It’s the stuff you find in Pop-Pop’s medicine cabinet that tastes like an old shoe. The stuff that’s become an unlikely super­star to teenagers, stand-up comedians, and beyond. And the stuff that was named the most trusted mouthwash in the Reader’s Digest annual survey of health and wellness products. In fact, the 4,000 Americans surveyed by the global market research firm Ipsos selected Listerine as the single most trusted brand in their medicine cabinets. Check out Reader’s Digest‘s other most trusted brands in America this year.

“I like to think that the burning inside my mouth makes that bacteria suffer,” said one person in the survey.

“There ain’t anything more real,” comic Tony Baker recently put it. “The brown Listerine plays zero games. The brown Listerine is all business.”

Listerine’s savage reputation is no accident. The original brown liquid was created in St. Louis in 1879 as an antibacterial cleanser for doctors and dentists. Inventor Joseph Lawrence, MD, named his creation after Joseph Lister, a famous English surgeon who’d pioneered the use of antiseptics.

The product sold modestly at first. But starting in 1920, Listerine’s fortunes skyrocketed, fueled by a single word: halitosis.

a vintage listerine bottle; portrait of dr. joseph listerGetty Images (2)
To bolster its germ-fighting credibility, the inventor of Listerine named his mouthwash after Dr. Joseph Lister (right), a pioneer of antiseptic surgery.

That grim-sounding bit of Latin means simply “bad breath.” Listerine made it infamous with an ad campaign as ruthless as the product itself. In magazines and newspapers, full-page spreads showed unfortunate, sad-eyed men and women being ostracized from polite society:

“They talk about you behind your back.”

“Don’t offend others needlessly.”

“Are you unpopular with your own children?”

Seem ridiculous? Americans didn’t think so. Within seven years of launching its halitosis ads, Listerine’s annual revenues had gone from $115,000 to $8 million, and to this day it remains the nation’s leading mouthwash brand. “Cool Mint” blue is now Listerine’s most popular flavor, but the brown stuff (which has come to be called “Gold” in some adoring circles) comes close behind.

Gold or brown, in the COVID-19 era, the product behind this household name seems likely to keep on shining. The pandemic has handed the $30 billion minty-fresh-breath ­industry—mouthwashes, mints, breath strips, and gels—a real challenge. Retail sales from 2020 showed a 20 percent drop in breath mints, for example. One leading company saw sales drop by 40 percent. “No one has anybody they’re looking to impress with fresh breath right now,” writes Marnie Shure, a food and entertainment journalist for thetakeout.com. “No close-quarters job interviews, first dates, or big kissing scenes in a community theater production of Oklahoma!

But the pandemic is a good time to be fighting germs. Some Listerine fans got excited last summer when research showed that anti­septic mouthwashes containing alcohol and essential oils such as menthol, thymol, and methyl salicylate (the butt-kicking active ingredients in Listerine) can kill the virus that causes COVID-19 in a petri dish. Sadly, that doesn’t mean Listerine can help control the disease in people—the virus lurks in the lungs and throat, not just our mouths. “Mouthwash is only intended to be used to help prevent common oral health problems like bad breath,” the company advises on its website.

text: unglamorous listerine has achieved remarkable fame.

It’s even possible to overuse mouthwash, many physicians warn. “The problem is that while there are bad and smelly bacteria we want to get rid of, there are good bacteria that we need,” says Jason Woloski, a family doctor in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

But there’s no doubt that Listerine kills germs—up to 99.9 percent of those it encounters in your mouth, the company claims. In fact, a decade ago, a study conducted in India and published by the National Institutes of Health found that rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash is at least as effective in controlling gum disease as flossing. The brand used in its study? Listerine.

And superfans have long known that if you’re willing to experiment (and you’re careful), Listerine and other antiseptic mouthwashes can do the dirty work in all sorts of places. Countless online guides share recipes for using it all around the house. It can clean your toilet, your floor, your flaking scalp, and even your smelly garbage disposal. “Just pour about two tablespoons down the drain, let it work for about an hour, then run the disposal with hot water for one minute,” advises one site. Put brown Listerine on an itchy scalp to kill lice. Put it on yellow toenails to kill fungus. In the healthcare world, these are what are known as off-label uses. In other words: Proceed with care and check with your doctor.

Clearly, Listerine has achieved a level of pop culture fame that’s remarkable for such an unglamorous product. There are videos all over YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok of young people taking the Brown Listerine Challenge, showing off how long they can maintain a mouthful of the stuff. They rarely last longer than 30 seconds.

“Brown Listerine could fry chicken in a pan with the stove off,” concluded one young taste tester. “Brown Listerine kills vampires and werewolves,” said another.

In other words, the brown stuff takes no prisoners. Fortunately, it’s on our side. Next, find out more of the most trusted cleaning products in America.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest