What is oil pulling? Oil pulling is the ancient Ayurvedic practice of swishing oil (like coconut or sesame) in your mouth for several minutes. Oil pulling originated in India millennia ago but is now widely practiced around the world.
You can technically oil pull with any edible oil, but coconut oil is best for improving oral health.
Oil pulling is an easy, inexpensive way to rebalance the oral microbiome and improve oral and dental health.
Does oil pulling really work? This folk remedy can help reduce inflammation within the mouth and improve gum health, but the claim that it can “pull toxins” from the bloodstream to detox the blood and cure disease is false.
Let’s examine the science, the myths, and how to oil pull for maximum benefit.
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What is oil pulling?
To oil pull, you swish oil in your mouth as a replacement for mouthwash.
Oil pulling can reduce pathogenic bacteria, like the ones that cause cavities and gum disease, in the mouth. Scientific studies show it also reduces gum inflammation, among other benefits.
Traditional Ayurvedic oil pulling, known as “kavala” or “gundusha,” involves swishing for a prolonged period of time, typically 5-20 minutes, preferably on an empty stomach. But 1-3 minutes of oil pulling is plenty to support a healthy mouth!
Although oil pulling has been around for the last 3,000 years or so, it became a major trend in the 1990s after a Russian physician, Dr. F. Karach, wrote about its health-boosting potential.
Ancient Ayurvedic medicine prescribed oil pulling for, well… everything. According to a review in The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, Ayurvedic practitioners claim oil pulling can cure 30 different diseases, including many illnesses that have nothing to do with the mouth.
Oil pulling should not be touted as a disease-curing miracle. These claims lack scientific evidence and have never been substantiated.
So, should you try oil pulling as part of a natural oral hygiene routine? Yes.
Should you expect oil pulling to detox your body and reverse disease? Absolutely not.
How to Oil Pull
To oil pull:
- Floss and brush your teeth before you start oil pulling.
- Place a tablespoon of oil in your mouth.
- Sit upright (don’t lay down) and swish the oil around for 1-3 minutes.
- Spit out the oil in the trash can, not a toilet or sink (the oil can clog pipes as it hardens).
- Rinse your mouth.
How often should you oil pull? If you suffer from gingivitis or gum disease, oil pull once a day to improve gum health. If you have good oral health, oil pull 1-2 times each week.
The Best Oil for Oil Pulling
Coconut oil is the best oil for oil pulling due to its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to balance the bacteria in the mouth. However, as long as you choose an oil that is cold-pressed and organic, you will still receive some benefits.
The most popular oils used for oil pulling are:
- Coconut oil
- Sesame oil
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower oil
- Olive oil
Coconut oil is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powerhouse. It also contains lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) that is incredibly effective at killing the bad bacteria that can lead to tooth decay. These same compounds may also decrease the amount of plaque that builds up on your teeth, in turn reducing your chance for gum disease.
I only use coconut oil for oil pulling. However, if you find the taste of coconut undesirable, I still recommend oil pulling with sesame or another oil that’s better tolerated.
In my opinion, you should avoid industrial seed oils for oil pulling, which includes both safflower and sunflower oil. Read more on Chris Kresser’s take on the health dangers of industrial seed oils.
Oral Health Benefits of Coconut Oil Pulling
University of Oxford scientists conclude that oil pulling is cost-effective and free from major dangers and that it “may have beneficial effects on dental hygiene.”
It supports a healthy oral microbiome — which is kind of like the immune system for your mouth — and may help reduce your risk of oral problems.
1. Coconut oil pulling reduces the risk of gingivitis.
Regular oil pulling might help you avoid the challenging and potentially dangerous form of gum disease known as gingivitis.
When your gums become swollen, inflamed, and tender, it may be a sign you have gingivitis. If you exhibit any of these symptoms, you should definitely take them seriously, as untreated gingivitis can eventually lead to major oral health issues like periodontitis.
The good news here is that oil pulling reduces gingivitis-causing plaque.
This may be because, during oil pulling, the oil acts as an emollient. Essentially, it suds up a little like soap, cleaning the teeth and gums from unwanted buildup.
Four clinical trials have been conducted to analyze the effect of oil pulling on the plaque known to cause gingivitis. All four found statistically significant improvements in plaque after oil pulling (typically for 2-4 weeks, depending on the study).
One of these studies even recorded a small increase in the benefits of oil pulling over chlorhexidine, the main ingredient in traditional mouthwashes.
I do want to emphasize, however, that these are short-term studies observing plaque buildup. To date, no research has been conducted on long-term oil pulling and gingivitis risk.
2. Oil pulling may help prevent and reverse cavities.
By supporting a balance of good-to-bad bacteria in the mouth, oil pulling may help remineralize teeth and play a part in reversing cavities naturally.
Your teeth are designed to rebuild (remineralize) themselves on an ongoing basis, but this remineralization is only possible in the presence of the proper nutrients and the absence of cavity-causing bacteria.
Overgrowth of harmful bacteria in your mouth, such as Streptococcus mutans (S. mutans), can lead to cavities, or “dental caries.”
This effect only seems to occur after at least three weeks, though—just one reason why coconut oil pulling should be used as a long-term dental health solution, not a quick fix.
While diet is key to healing cavities, coconut oil pulling might also play a useful role by correcting dysbiosis of the oral microbiome and keeping S. mutans in check.
3. Coconut oil pulling may reduce oral thrush symptoms.
Coconut oil is known to have antifungal properties, so it helps to kill and Candida living in the mouth. A review of current research found that coconut oil pulling is a very cost-effective and easy way to reduce oral thrush symptoms.
When Candida yeast is allowed to proliferate in the mouth, it can lead to an infection known as oral thrush.
This condition is most often experienced by people:
- With dentures
- Undergoing chemotherapy or radiation
- Using inhalers for asthma
- Taking medication that alters the microbiome (including antibiotics and steroids).
Babies also experience oral thrush somewhat frequently, although they can’t oil pull.
4. Oil pulling can fix bad breath.
Oil pulling is able to support your saliva’s efforts in disorganizing bacteria without killing the good bacteria and drying your mouth out. At least three separate clinical trials found that regular oil pulling can kill the bacteria responsible for halitosis.
Unlike mouthwash, which dries out the mouth and makes bad breath worse, oil pulling supports a healthy oral microbiome.
Coconut Oil Pulling Dangers & Precautions
Oil pulling is a relatively safe and simple process with no known side effects. However, keep in mind these potential risks:
- If you choke on oil during oil pulling, the fat can make its way into your lungs and, in rare cases, cause lipid pneumonia. This is rare but is the major reason small children should not oil pull.
- If you’re allergic to coconuts or any other coconut products, you should not practice oil pulling with coconut oil.
- Swallowing the oil after pulling will not cause you to swallow toxins from your bloodstream, but it can upset your stomach. Make sure to spit it out, never swallow.
- Oil pulling is not a substitute for brushing and flossing your teeth. Continue your dental care routine and add oil pulling, if you want to try it out, but don’t stop brushing.
The American Dental Association does not recommend oil pulling due to a lack of “reliable studies” to show that it improves oral health or acts as a preventative measure for oral disease.
Members of other reputable associations, like the International Academy of Oral Medicine & Toxicology (IAOMT), regularly encourage this practice.
Oil Pulling Myths & Misconceptions
Oil pulling definitely works to improve your oral health, no question. It kills bad bacteria and still allows you to maintain a healthy oral microbiome. It may even lower inflammation and oxidative stress that may be impacting the teeth, gums, and mouth.
Unfortunately, there are many myths about oil pulling that have been disproven. As a dentist, I’ve heard every single myth on this list!
Here’s the truth:
- Oil pulling cannot replace brushing and flossing. An oil pulling habit can be a positive addition to your oral hygiene routine, but it absolutely cannot take the place of brushing and flossing your teeth.
- Oil pulling doesn’t cure TMJ/TMD. There’s no proof that oil pulling can relieve TMJ pain.
- Oil pulling does not loosen crowns or fillings. If this occurs in the practice of oil pulling, it means there was already a decayed foundation beneath the devices.
- Oil pulling doesn’t whiten teeth. It might help improve the appearance of your teeth by removing stains caused by bacteria. But oil pulling doesn’t whiten teeth any more than swishing water in your mouth would.
- Oil pulling doesn’t cure disease. There is no reliable scientific proof that oil pulling can treat or cure any of the 30+ conditions Ayurvedic tradition claims it can.
- Oil pulling doesn’t pull toxins from your bloodstream. Traditional practitioners often warn those who try oil pulling, especially pregnant mothers, to avoid swallowing the oil because of the “toxins” it may expose a fetus to. There’s no evidence whatsoever that this “toxin pulling” occurs or is even physically possible.
- You don’t need to oil pull for 15-20 minutes. To achieve the benefits to the oral microbiome that oil pulling provides, 1-3 minutes is plenty of time. There is no added benefit in doing it for a longer period of time.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Why do you recommend flossing and brushing before oil pulling?
The biofilm on your teeth needs to be reconditioned each day to retain healthy colonies of good bacteria. Rebalancing the oral microbiome is one of the key benefits of oil pulling. If you brush after you oil pull, you’ll actually brush away the anti-inflammatory compounds in the oil and limit their ability to support your oral health.
Final Thoughts on Oil Pulling
Oil pulling is one of the easiest practices you can learn to improve and maintain oral health. In fact, learning how to oil pull is probably easier than learning how to brush your teeth the right way.
It won’t cure your diseases, but it can support a healthy oral microbiome and reduce oral inflammation associated with bleeding gums and gum disease.
My preferred oil for pulling is coconut oil, due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties. Try pulling for 1-3 minutes a day if you can.Learn More: Remineralizing Coconut Oil Pulling Chews
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