Oil pulling is everywhere! Even though it is a technique taken from the ancient tradition of Ayurvedic medicine from 3,000 years ago, it’s recently become a huge trend and is even touted by practically every celebrity on Instagram.
What is it? Oil pulling is swishing with coconut, sesame, or sunflower oil for about twenty minutes and then spitting it out. The internet is full of lofty claims that oil pulling cures eczema, arthritis, gum disease, bad breath, and even whitens your teeth.
Is it as good for you as everyone says? No — but I do think there can be some benefit to it.
If you’re interested in oil pulling, this is what you need to know, based on the scientific literature as well as my own experience trying it out.
Oil Pulling: Fact vs. Fiction
1. Oil pulling can’t replace flossing and brushing.
The claim is that swishing oil in between the teeth can remove bacteria. Just like scale on your bathtub, plaque needs to be mechanically removed by scraping it from tooth surfaces — this is done with floss and the hygienist’s tools. But what about all the studies that say oil pulling reduces plaque? Reducing plaque and removing it in a way that prevents gum disease are different things. Swishing for 20 minutes with oil reduces plaque in the same way that swishing with water for 20 minutes reduces plaque — it dilutes the stickiness of plaque and its ability to stick on teeth.
If done daily, oil pulling could remove some tooth staining and reduce plaque and bacteria, but not enough to prevent gum disease. That’s where flossing, brushing, and tongue scraping come in.
2. Oil pulling is a great replacement for mouthwash and can improve gut health.
You know the mouthwash in your cabinet that proudly claims to kill 99% of germs? It also wipes out the good bacteria in your mouth, which isn’t good for dental health nor the health of the rest of your body. Overall health — including brain health — depends on a healthy microbiome, which is our body’s natural bacterial ecology that we have evolved with and which prevents against disease.
If you miss the feeling of mouthwash and are looking for a replacement, oil pulling can be a great alternative. Coconut oil, in particular, contains antioxidant Vitamin E, as well as lauric acid, which has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
3. Choose an organic, high-quality oil.
A Harvard Medical School study found that one in five Ayurvedic herbal medical products produced in South Asia and sold in Boston grocery stores contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic. Oil pulling can be harmful if you don’t choose a high-quality, organic oil that is manufactured well.
4. Oil pulling isn’t kid-friendly.
If oil goes down the wrong tube, it can cause lipoid pneumonia — an awfully silly risk to take for something that does not have much upside for a child’s dental health. The best thing parents can do for their children’s dental health is focus on raising great brushers and flossers using only positive reinforcement.
5. Oil pulling is not a cure-all.
There is no scientific evidence to support the claims that oil pulling helps with diabetes, migraines, arthritis, eczema, migraines, or asthma. If you’re going to spend 20 to 30 minutes doing something for your health, perfect your brushing and flossing technique. Many of us don’t stop to think about our technique, but I see the damaging effects of overbrushing all too often. Another great thing to spend time on is Buteyko breathing, which is a myofacial physical therapy that effectively treats asthma and sleep breathing disorders.
6. Oil pulling is safe during pregnancy.
Oil pulling does not draw out toxins in the mouth. If you like oil pulling, there’s no reason to stop while you’re pregnant!
7. Oil pulling does not whiten teeth.
Oil pulling for 20-30 minutes every day could help remove some teeth staining, but so does swishing with water for just as long.
8. Oil pulling does not treat TMJ/TMD.
Swishing with oil doesn’t address the root causes that contribute to the many factors that cause jaw pain. If you are oil pulling and experiencing some jaw pain relief, keep in mind that this is masking the symptoms, but failing to treat the root cause. If your house was on fire, you’d want to stop the fire — not just remove the smoke. Be sure to work with your dentist and get a sleep study if you’re grinding your teeth.
All of this said, Ayurvedic techniques deserve more attention and scientific research. Just because the evidence is limited doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there getting benefit or that there are health benefits we simply haven’t proven yet with clinical studies.
As long as you’re aware of how to do it safely and always use a high-quality oil, I don’t see any downsides to oil pulling.
I won’t be continuing with oil pulling since I don’t see enough of a benefit, however, everyone is different.
Mark Burhenne DDS
Are you seeing health benefits from your own oil pulling? Let me know your experiences with oil pulling in the comments below — I read each and every one!