Oil pulling — Does it work?

Dear Alice,

I just recently heard of oil pulling where someone swishes oil in their mouth for 10 minutes and it is supposed to remove bacteria in a person's mouth, preventing cavities, etc. Does this work?

Dear Reader,  

Moving oil around may not be just for oil companies! Oil pulling is the process of swishing edible oils in the mouth for several minutes, as you might do with mouthwash. While interest in this oral care method has surged in recent years, this holistic medical routine dates back over 3000 years. This practice, also known as Kavala Graha or Kavala Gendhoosa, is an Ayurvedic (ancient traditional Indian) therapy. This has been used to promote optimal gum and tooth health, as well as treat oral disease. In addition to its oral health benefits, proponents of this practice believe that it can cure over 30 bodily diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and headaches. It’s worth mentioning that there’s been limited research to confirm these benefits and it’s not currently recommended by the American Dental Association. Keep reading for more on the method and other considerations about integrating this practice as part of an oral hygiene regimen.  

How does oil pulling work? It can be done with any organic oil — sunflower, coconut, and sesame oils tend to be the most common. First, gargle a tablespoon of oil on an empty stomach for about 10 to 20 minutes. If swishing for this long causes jaw tension, the time can be reduced to five to ten minutes. By the end, the oil will resemble a thin, white milk. Next, it’s wise to spit out the oil in a trash can or paper towel — spitting it out in the sink can lead to clogging problems! Finally, rinse the mouth with clean, warm water (salty or tap) and proceed with regular brushing. While this process poses few health risks, it isn’t recommended for children under five years old. They could accidentally swallow it, which could impair breathing. Besides swallowing the oil, the other main risk is if someone is allergic to the oil, so it’s best to avoid any known allergens.  

Some research studies suggest that oil pulling can whiten teeth, strengthen jaw muscles, improve dry mouth, and reduce inflammation, bleeding, plaque, gingivitis, halitosis (bad breath), as well as lower the count of certain bacteria that could lead to tooth decay. However, these studies had small numbers of participants and the way the protocols were implemented make it difficult to attribute the results to oil pulling. The efficacy of oil pulling could be due to several reasons: it could be that some mouth-residing bacteria or small molecules are more soluble in oil than in water. So, as the oil is swished in the mouth, the particles dissolve into the oil and are easily spit out. Or it could be that the mechanical act of swishing almost any liquid in the mouth for an extended period of time could help loosen particles and plaque from teeth. Finally, it’s also been speculated that swishing the oil forms a type of barrier on the teeth that protect them from acid erosion.  

When considering whether to try oil pulling, it’s probably more of a matter of preference. One study found that while the benefits of oil pulling were equal to traditional (chlorhexidine) mouthwash in terms of preventing plaque and gingivitis, oil pulling had fewer negative side effects. Some may find traditional mouthwashes to be irritating or have an unpleasant taste, so oil pulling could be an alternative. At the same time, given that oil pulling is easy and cost-effective, some argue that the practice could improve oral health where access to routine care is limited.  

While there needs to be more research on oil pulling, there are several tried-and-true ways to prevent cavities, gum disease, and maintain oral health! Brushing teeth twice a day with a fluoride-containing toothpaste, flossing daily, replacing the tooth brush every three to four months, and keeping regular appointments with a dentist are all recommended for keeping those pearly whites sparkling and the mouth fresh. If you do choose to incorporate oil pulling into your oral care regimen, you could consider making it an addition to these oral hygiene practices instead of a substitute for them. You might also talk with your dentist about their thoughts on oil pulling and if it’s appropriate for you. To learn more oral health tips, consider checking out the Go Ask Alice! Oral Health archives.  

Hope this gives you something to smile about! 

Last updated May 21, 2021
Originally published Jun 13, 2014

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