Does oil pulling really work? For some things, the benefits are clear, for others, it's questionable. I'll share how to oil pull, and what benefits you may see from the practice.
What is Oil Pulling?
Oil pulling is a dental hygiene practice that involves swishing a spoonful of oil around the mouth for 15-20 minutes, forcing it back and forth (pulling) through the teeth. When you finish, spit out the oil in a waste bin or compost pail. (Coconut oil down the sink or toilet drain may lead to clogged pipes.)
Rinse the mouth with water or salt water, and brush and floss as usual. If you use a tongue scraper, using it right after you pull is a good idea. (I have one similar to this copper tongue scraper, and copper is naturally antibacterial.)
I do oil pulling daily as part of my morning routine, and spit the used oil in my compost. Most recommendations suggest doing it first thing in the morning before eating or drinking, and repeating up to three times per day.
I find solid coconut oil easier to use than liquid oil. I put a spoonful in my cheek and let it warm up and melt. This gives me a minute or two to get used to that much oil in my mouth. You can start with smaller amounts and work up to a tablespoon.
If swishing for 15 – 20 minutes is too much, start with 5-10 minutes and work up to a longer time period. You don't have swish constantly – you can take a break now and then. Once you get used to it, it's really not a big deal, but my cheeks were a bit sore at first.
Which oil should I use?
The most commonly used oils are sunflower, sesame and coconut. I prefer Nutiva coconut oil, and keep a small jar on my counter that I refill from my gallon container.
Earth Clinic contributors discuss using sesame, sunflower, olive, walnut, macadamia, coconut, Udo's Oil, Total EFA Oil and others. Some people reported that their teeth took on a yellow tinge from using olive oil, so other oils may be a better choice.
What does oil pulling do?
To read some claims, oil pulling does everything but cook you breakfast in the morning. If we look back at the Ayurvedic roots of the practice, the tongue is linked to various organs. Working the oil around the mouth is intended to provide a cleansing affect throughout the body.
Scientifically, we know that many of the oils used are antimicrobial, so they reduce problematic bacteria in the mouth. The pulling action activates salivary enzymes and emulsifies the oil, so it acts as a surfactant, loosening plaque buildup.
I've found that it makes my teeth feel smooth and clean, and has lightened some of my teeth stains but not removed them. (No magic cure for whitening teeth here, sorry.)
I notice that it helps clear out sinus congestion. After pulling for a while, the crud works loose from my nose and throat area, and I can spit it all out when I spit out the oil. Plus, it's great for getting out stuck bits of popcorn hull or other fibrous pieces of plant material that brushing and flossing miss.
The American Dental Association states there are no reliable scientific studies supporting the practice, but they also say it's safe to put neurotoxins in your teeth.
Let's take a look at some of the studies indicating that oil pulling may improve oral health, and possible benefits.
Reduces Bad Breath
Mouth bacteria is commonly associated with bad breath (halitosis). When researchers compared commercial mouthwash to oil pulling with sesame oil, they found that both worked as well for treating halitosis.
Unlike commercial mouthwash, the oil helps to moisten dry mouths and sooth chapped lips.
Improves Gum Health
Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums. Left untreated, it can lead to periodontitis, which is associated with tooth loss and systemic diseases. This may be where the big health claims come from – clear up the gums, and the other problems may also improve.
This 30 day study indicates that oil swishing reduces plaque and gingivitis, specifically: “A statistically significant decrease in the plaque and gingival indices was noticed from day 7 and the scores continued to decrease during the period of study.”
Another study compared the use of oil pulling with chlorhexidine mouthwash, with favorable results.
May Help Fight Tooth Decay
In the study, Effect of oil-pulling on dental caries causing bacteria, researchers tested sesame oil for 40 days. Their conclusion was that the volunteers saw a notable reduction in the susceptibility to dental caries. Specifically, they noted that the oil helped decrease plaque causing bacteria.
Sesame and sunflower oils on their own do not fight mouth bacteria, but the action of oil pulling changes them (enzyme action and emulsification action) so that they can lift contaminants from teeth.
This study concludes: “The myth that the effect of oil-pulling therapy on oral health was just a placebo effect has been broken and there are clear indications of possible saponification and emulsification process, which enhances its mechanical cleaning action.”
Is Oil Pulling Dangerous?
I read some accounts of people who experienced mouth irritation from oil pulling. If this happens, discontinue, try a different oil or pull less frequently. Don't swallow the oil, as it contains dead bacteria and other things that are better out than in.
Some people also express concern that oil pulling may pull mercury out of metal fillings and put it into circulation in the body. I asked our holistic dentist about this potential problem. He said this was not an issue because you spit the oil into the trash.
I have fillings in my teeth and have never had one come loose during oil pulling. My son did manage to loosen a temporary filling, which needed to be replaced. We used a filling repair kit to plug the hole until we could get in to see the dentist.
Should you do it?
Oil pulling is cheap and easy to do, and evidence suggests that it improves dental health. What do you have to lose other than some plaque?
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Originally posted in 2012, last updated in 2021.