Does Oil Pulling Actually Work? What To Consider Before You Start Swishing

You brush and floss, but when was the last time that you spent 20 minutes swishing oil around your mouth? If your answer is “never,” it might be time to give oil pulling a try.

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From a young age, we’re taught about the importance of dental health. You probably brush your teeth every day, at least twice a day, floss regularly, and avoid eating sugary foods. After all, cavities and dental procedures are no fun, so avoiding them can provide plenty of inspiration for maintaining good dental hygiene. Plus, we now know that dental health is an important part of overall health, so keeping a good oral hygiene routine is about much more than just maintaining those pearly whites. No matter how healthy you are, though, you might not have heard of oil pulling. However, the practice could be your new go-to for improving your dental and overall health. Sure, the name sounds a little unappealing, and once you realize that oil pulling involves swirling oil around your mouth for 20 minutes at a time, you might not be so keen on giving the practice a try. If you can get over that hesitation, though, you can reap the benefits, which are said to range from whiter teeth to fewer toxins in your body. Want to know if oil pulling is right for you? Here’s everything you need to know about the ancient practice before incorporating it into your wellness plan.

What is oil pulling?

Before we get too far, let’s take an look at what oil pulling actually is. After all, the term and the practice are unfamiliar to many Americans. Oil pulling is the practice of using oil to clean the mouth. While the process is fairly involved, the big takeaway is that you put about a tablespoon of oil in your mouth and swish it around, pulling it between your teeth for about 20 minutes before spitting it out. Proponents of oil pulling say the process draws toxins out of the system, cleansing not just the mouth but the entire body. Some say that because of the purification oil pulling causes, it can be used to treat a range of illnesses and diseases. Oil pulling is often said to be an ancient Ayurvedic practice, stemming from the traditional medicine of India. However, that might be a bit of a misrepresentation. Ancient Ayurvedic medicine did promote gargling with oil. According to Claudia Welch, doctor of Oriental medicine, one oft-quoted Ayurvedic text reads, “Keeping of oil gargle provides strength in jaws and voice, development of face, maximum taste and relish in food. The person practicing this does not suffer from dryness of throat, there is no fear of lip-cracking, teeth are not affected with caries, rather they become firm-rooted. They (teeth) are not painful, nor are they oversensitive on sour-taking, they become able to chew even the hardest food items.” However, most experts say that this is fairly different from the oil pulling that people practice today, which has much more modern roots. Bruce Fife, certified nutritionist, naturopathic physician, and expert on oil pulling, writes in an article for the Coconut Research Center that the practice as we know it today was first promoted in 1992. Whether oil pulling has been practiced for thousands of years or only a few decades, scientific and anecdotal evidence both show that it can be highly effective.

How does oil pulling work?

How can swirling oil around your mouth improve the condition of your teeth and detoxify your body? The process seems a little hard to believe, but a growing cohort of experts insist that it works. “Oil pulling is a detoxification of your mouth,” says Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse from New York City and the founder of Remedies For Me, a website that promotes natural remedies for various ailments. “This process sucks out toxins that are built up in the mouth and creates a cleaner environment by killing lingering harmful microbes.” Fife says that the process isn’t too different to what happens in your car’s engine. “The oil acts like a cleanser,” he writes in the same Coconut Research Center piece. “When you put it in your mouth and work it around your teeth and gums it ‘pulls’ out bacteria and other debris. It acts much like the oil you put in your car engine. The oil picks up dirt and grime. When you drain the oil, it pulls out the dirt and grime with it, leaving the engine relatively clean. Consequently, the engine runs smoother and lasts longer. Likewise, when we expel harmful substances from our bodies our health is improved and we run smoother and last longer.” Lee says that oils containing fatty acids, like coconut oil, attract inflammation-causing microbes. These are drawn out from the gums and between the teeth and eventually leave the body when you spit out the oil, she says. Because of this, oil pulling can improve a variety of health conditions throughout your whole body. “Oil pulling flushes out potentially harmful microbes that can cause bad breath and other oral health disorders,” she says.

What does the science say?

Scientific studies strongly support the benefits of oil pulling. One study published in The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine found that increasing awareness of oil pulling and other Ayurvedic practices could help prevent tooth loss and decay in certain populations. The study notes that Ayurvedic practitioners believe the tongue is connected to organ systems throughout the body, and therefore that detoxifying the mouth can benefit the entire physical body. The authors also note that oil pulling and other complementary and alternative means of oral health care can prevent and cure certain illnesses.   “The oil therapy is preventative as well as curative. The exciting aspect of this healing method is its simplicity,” they write. A study published in the Indian Journal of Dental Research concluded, “The myth that the effect of oil-pulling therapy on oral health was just a placebo effect has been broken.” Another study concluded, “Oil pulling can be used as an effective preventive adjunct in maintaining and improving oral health.” Oil pulling with coconut oil has also been shown to reduce plaque formation and gingivitis. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice surprised even the researchers. The authors were comparing oil pulling with coconut oil to the use of an antimicrobial mouthwash. They hypothesized that the coconut oil would not reduce the bacteria count in participants’ saliva. However, they found that the coconut oil pulling did reduce the bacteria in participants’ saliva and can be considered “a safe and effective alternative” to chemical mouthwashes. The study’s authors state that their findings’ have legitimate clinical significance. “Edible oil-pulling therapy is natural, safe, and has no side effects. Hence, it can be considered as a preventive therapy at home to maintain oral hygiene.”

Can your dental health actually have an impact on your whole body?

The idea that your dental health has an impact on all areas of your body might seem extreme, but research supports its validity. Your mouth is full of bacteria (most of which are good or harmless). If those bacteria get out of control, however, they can wreak havoc on your whole body. This happens when you have dental conditions like gingivitis (gum inflammation) or periodontitis, a serious gum disease. Some research suggests that there is a noteworthy relationship between oral health and cardiovascular disease. The science is not yet definitive, but the American Heart Association (AHA) says that oral health can be a good indicator of overall health. “The mouth can be a good warning signpost,” Ann Bolger, MD, William Watt Kerr Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told the AHA. “People with periodontitis often have risk factors that not only put their mouth at risk, but their heart and blood vessels, too. But whether one causes the other has not actually been shown.” There are additional ways that the health of your mouth affects your overall health, too. One of the main functions of saliva is to sweep bacteria away from our teeth. However, the fluid is also critical for promoting healthy digestion. Lee says that increasing saliva through oil pulling can help us digest food more efficiently. “Oil pulling increases the production of saliva, which increases the speed of digestion,” she says.

Giving Oil Pulling a Try (And Why You’ll Need a Trash Can Nearby)

If you’re ready to give oil pulling a try, the first step is to make sure that you have the right kind of oil on hand. Coconut oil is the most commonly used. In addition to being a popular oil in Ayurvedic tradition, coconut oil has strong antimicrobial properties that make it especially effective at removing toxins during oil pulling. Additionally, most coconut oils contain vitamin E, which has been known to help repair tissue and fight inflammation. Sesame oil is another common choice that has similar benefits, and really any vegetable-based oil can be used. “Coconut oil, olive oil, sunflower seed oil, and sesame oil have strong antimicrobial and antifungal properties that can keep your teeth strong and healthy,” says Lee. “Coconut oil contains lauric acid and produces monolaurin after digestion. Both lauric acid and monolaurin are powerful agents against harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi.” You’ll also want to make sure that you have a trash can with a plastic or removable liner nearby. That’s because when you’re finished oil pulling you can’t simply spit the oil into the sink or even the toilet. “The used oil can cause a clogged drain,” Lee explains.

What does the process of oil pulling entail?

Now that you’ve stocked up on your oil of choice, it’s time to actually give oil pulling a try. The best time to oil pull is in the morning on an empty stomach as soon as you wake up. “Make sure to oil pull before you eat, drink, or brush your teeth,” Lee says. Begin by putting one to two tablespoons of oil in your mouth (you’ll want your mouth about half full). If you’re using coconut oil, make sure it is in its liquid form, not hardened because of exposure to cold. Once the oil is in your mouth, simply swish it around for 15 to 20 minutes, making sure to pass it over your gums and pull it through your teeth, Lee says. During that time, be careful not to swallow any of the oil. After all, you’re using it to collect all the bacteria and toxins that you don’t want in your mouth, and you certainly don’t want to ingest them any further into your system. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, spit a little bit of the oil out (into the trash, not the sink!). As time passes, you’ll notice the texture of the oil changing as it picks up substances from your gums and teeth. When you spit it out, it will likely be whitish and lumpy. When you’re done, rinse your mouth with warm water, or Lee recommends a sea salt or pink Himalayan salt solution for added cleansing. After that, you can brush your teeth and carry on with your day.

Tips and tricks to make oil pulling easier.

Lee says that oil pulling is safe for nearly anyone—including pregnant and nursing women. Even people with dentures can benefit from the removal of toxins via oil pulling, although dentures should be removed during the process, she says. She shares that kids ages 5 and older can try it as well, but should use less oil and aim to pull it through their teeth for a shorter amount of time. It’s important that a child knows not to swallow the oil and has demonstrated that they don’t swallow toothpaste, gum, or mouthwash before being allowed to participate in oil pulling like Mom or Dad. Many people balk at the idea of spending 20 minutes swishing oil. If that’s a concern, try oil pulling while you are in the shower, or use it as a way to work a little more relaxation time into your morning. “Just put the oil in your mouth, get back into bed with your phone to keep you company, and it’ll be over before you know it,” Lee says. It’s important to recognize that oil pulling—which can be done multiple times a day or just a few days a week—is a supplement to your current dental routine, not a substitute. “Oil pulling should not replace the physical brushing of your teeth, flossing, or the visitation of your dentist every six months,” Lee says. “It is rather an effective addition to your already established oral routine.” The process may take some time to get used to, but if you can incorporate oil pulling into your life, the results will be worth it. Lee’s best advice? “Don’t discredit oil pulling until you’ve actually tried it for at least a week.”

Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist who has written for The Washington Post, Cosmo, and more. She specializes in health and mental health content as well as stories about families. When she's not writing she is getting lost in the woods of New Hampshire, where she lives. Connect on Facebook or find out more at her website.