Oil pulling is everywhere! Even though it is a technique taken from the ancient tradition of Ayurvedic medicine (the traditional Hindu system of medicine, which is based on the idea of balance in bodily systems) 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 two 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 to 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 antibacterial 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 myofascial 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.
Recipes: Oil Pulling Chews
I was skeptical, but thanks to your emails, I’ve recently started giving oil pulling a try. Personally, I couldn’t stand pulling with just plain organic coconut oil, so I made my own recipes for coconut oil pulling chews.
The idea behind chews is to make them more convenient (I keep them in the fridge both at home and at work, and pop one in between snacks and meals). Plus, by making chews, I was able to add in other ingredients to promote healthy flora. One of the recipes is designed to promote oral microbiome health, and the other is formulated with arginine—an evidence-backed remineralizer.
- Mix coconut oil with avocado oil.
- Whisk in baobab powder, until dissolved.
- Fill ice cube trays in 1 teaspoon portions (or 2 teaspoons if you prefer).
- Freeze for at least 2 hours, or until completely hardened.
- Transfer to a jar and store in the fridge. Use one each morning for oil pulling first thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything. Look for silicone or BPA-free ice cube trays if possible.
Gently swish, pull and suck the oil through your teeth, the chews will quickly melt in your mouth as you begin. Start slow and don’t work too hard, start with 5 minutes a day and work your way up to 15-20 minutes.
Don’t swallow the oil.
If the urge to swallow is too great, try cutting the chew into half to use less.
Discard the used oil out in the trash, discarding in the sink or toilet can clog plumbing. Rinse your mouth with warm water and floss and brush as normal.
- Mix coconut oil with avocado oil in a medium sized bowl, set aside.
- In a separate bowl combine the xylitol, baking soda and l-arginine, mix with a fork until well combined.
- Slowly add the powders into the oil, mixing with a fork.
- Fill ice cube trays in 1/2 teaspoon portions, mix often as you fill the tray to prevent powders from settling to the bottom of the bowl.
- Freeze for at least 2 hours, or until completely hardened.
- Transfer the chews to a jar and store in the fridge.
- Use one each morning for oil pulling first thing in the morning, before eating or drinking anything.
- Use after an acidic drink like coffee or wine to help freshen your breath and prevent staining. I always recommend you wait at least 20-30 minutes after an acidic meal or drink before brushing, since acids weaken enamel, making it vulnerable with a toothbrush. Unlike brushing after an acidic drink, oil pulling will accomplish the same thing without harming your enamel. If you struggle with coffee breath, pop one of these and swish for 5-10 minutes before heading out the door—no brushing required!
How to Oil Pull
Gently swish, pull and suck the oil through your teeth, the chews will quickly melt in your mouth as you begin. Start slow and don’t work too hard, start with 3-5 minutes a day and work your way up to 15-20 minutes.
Don’t swallow the oil. Try using less if the urge to swallow is too great.
Don’t spit in the sink! Discard the used oil out in the trash, as discarding in the sink or toilet can clog plumbing.
Optional: Rinse your mouth with warm water.
Try them out, and let me know what you think!
Dr. Mark Burhenne
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!