A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Can you get drunk on Listerine? How about vanilla extract?

February 4, 2005

Dear Cecil:

Recently I came across an article in the Boston Globe stating, essentially, that a woman drank some Listerine, drove, and was subsequently arrested for DUI. I had previously thought that the "specially denatured" alcohol used in mouthwashes and other cosmetic products did not intoxicate when ingested. Obviously, someone is wrong here, and I fear it may be me. I plead for your wisdom on this subject.

Dear cecil,

can you actually get drunk on mouthwash, vanilla extract etc etc. thanx dude

Cecil Adams replies:

Listerine abuse has got to be the stupidest form of private amusement since … well, I was about to say since biblical knowledge of the Hoover Dustette (see penis, surgical repair of wounds to), but on reflection I have to say intravenous lettuce injection, recently discussed in this space, is also up there. To answer your collective questions briefly: no, denaturing of alcohol, special or otherwise, doesn't render it incapable of causing intoxication, and yes, you can get pretty hammered if you drink enough, although why anyone of legal drinking age would want to do so is a question that defies linear thought.

Many mouthwashes contain alcohol — original formula Listerine is 26.9 percent alcohol, making it approximately 54 proof (other flavors contain less). Denatured makes it sound like they take out of alcohol whatever's normally in it that gets you drunk, but in fact all they do is put other stuff in to make it undrinkable (except by the truly desperate) and in some cases poisonous. Why denature, you ask? Because the potable natural version is subject to federal excise tax, whereas the denatured kind isn't. "Completely denatured alcohol" is virtually impossible to render into a drinkable beverage — it may contain kerosene, among other things. "Specially denatured alcohol" such as that used in Listerine receives less radical treatment, although some SDA formulas do contain methyl (wood) alcohol, which if ingested often or copiously enough can cause blindness, organ damage, and death.

Listerine presumably is free of such toxins (which is not to say it's entirely safe, a matter we'll return to), though its manufacturer, Pfizer, declined to confirm exactly what form of SDA it does contain. However, my resourceful consultant Bibliophage deduces that Pfizer uses SDA formula 38-B as defined in the Code of Federal Regulations, since said formula is the only one listed that may include eucalyptol, menthol, methyl salicylate, and thymol, all of which are named as active ingredients on the Listerine label. Impress your buddies in the Dumpster with that.

Which brings up another issue: Why would anybody drink this stuff when a couple bucks will get you a bottle of Thunderbird or Wild Irish Rose and let you vaporize brain cells in style? The only remotely plausible explanations I've heard are that (a) while the clerks keep a close eye on the booze aisle, boosting Listerine is, comparatively speaking, cake; (b) some states restrict alcohol sales on Sundays or at other specified times; and (c) mouthwash is easier to sneak into the shelter, hospital, etc.

Evidence on the last point comes to us from the Journal of Emergency Medicine, which tells of a 55-year-old woman treated in the ER for acute alcohol intoxication. Puzzled that her blood ethanol level remained high, medical personnel established that when searched she'd been allowed to keep a bottle of Listerine on the grounds that it was a personal hygiene product. This she had been surreptitiously imbibing. ER medics have a term for the alcohol contained in such unorthodox inebriants: NBE, or nonbeverage ethanol. Besides mouthwash, NBE sources include hair spray, cosmetics, some cough and cold remedies (e.g. NyQuil), aftershave and other personal care products, and, yes, vanilla extract.

Whatever gets you through the night. But let's be practical. First, while mouthwash is perhaps less apt to corrode your internal organs than, say, brake fluid (or paint thinner, or shoe polish dripped through stale bread), carrot juice it ain't. Turning to the journals again, we read of one fellow who died after drinking three liters of Listerine; if mouthwash is quaffed in keg-size quantities, the authors conclude, the "phenolic compounds" it contains (eucalyptol, menthol, and thymol) "may contribute to a severe anion-gap metabolic acidosis and osmolar gap, multiorgan system failure, and death."

Still on the fence? I found some no-name, plastic-bottle, one-notch-above-Prestone 80-proof vodka on sale at the supermarket for $9.99 per 1.75 liters, or 1.4 cents per milliliter of alcohol. A one-liter bottle of Listerine original can be had for $5.19, or 1.9 cents per milliliter of alcohol. So, Dwayne, if you're chugging mouthwash thinking, OK, it's not Remy Martin, but at least I'm saving money for grad school — sorry, dude, think again.

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