What to Know About the Benefits of Oil Pulling for Your Teeth
What is oil pulling, and does it offer any benefits beyond those you get from brushing your teeth? Here's what dental experts think.
Oil pulling is an alternative medicine practice that dates back thousands of years and is used in Ayurvedic medicine. The technique involves vigorously swishing oil—usually coconut oil—in your mouth, before spitting it out, in an effort to promote good oral health.
The research on oil pulling is limited, and experts debate just how beneficial it can be.
Matthew Messina, a dentist and spokesperson for the American Dental Association (which does not currently recommend oil pulling as a dental hygiene practice), is among those who believe oil pulling lacks sufficient evidence of benefits and likely is neither dangerous nor beneficial.
“This fits in the category of something that was done historically because, at the time, toothpaste and toothbrushes weren’t readily available,” Dr. Messina says. “In a sense, oil pulling was better than nothing in its era, but just because it was practiced in the past doesn’t necessarily make it better than something that has replaced it today, like brushing with a toothpaste containing fluoride, flossing, or using a Waterpik to clean between your teeth.”
Here’s everything you need to know about oil pulling, its potential benefits, and what you should know if you try this alternative treatment at home.
(Related: 35 Secrets Your Dentist Won’t Tell You)
It may break up plaque
The most commonly cited benefit of oil pulling has to do with its purported ability to break down plaque, or biofilm, on the teeth. This is a layer of bacteria that clings to the surface of the tooth. It can get out of control very quickly, especially if you eat a western diet, which raises your odds of having cavities and bad breath. Without regular removal, biofilm can lead to conditions like gingivitis and periodontal disease.
“Unlike brushing your teeth, which is the mechanical removal of the biofilm, [oil pulling] is a mild chemical emulsification breakup of this biofilm,” says dentist Mark Burhenne, founder of AsktheDentist.com. As it moves around your teeth, the oil breaks downs the layer of plaque without being overly harsh.
A study of 60 teens with gingivitis (a mild form of gum disease that causes inflamed gums), published in 2015 in the Nigerian Medical Journal, found that participants had less plaque and better gum health after only a week of coconut oil pulling.
In another study, researchers randomly assigned of 20 teens with gingivitis to swish with mouthwash or sesame oil for 10 days. They found that both treatments reduced the number of harmful mouth bacteria, according to the Indian Journal of Dental Research.
It’s worth noting that both of these studies were small, so more research is needed to confirm the results in a larger study group.
(Related: 12 Things Dentists Never Put in Their Mouth)
It may help prevent cavities
Oil pulling could potentially help prevent cavities, Dr. Burhenne says. According to 2016 research in The Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice, oil pulling may decrease the number of harmful bacteria in saliva as effectively as a mouthwash. These types of bacteria in the mouth can lead to tooth decay and cavities.
It could help banish bad breath
People with halitosis, or bad breath, may find oil pulling offers some relief. A small study of 20 children, published in the Journal of Indian Society of Pedodontics and Preventive Dentistry compared rinsing with chlorhexidine (a typical antiseptic mouthwash treatment for halitosis) to sesame oil pulling. They found that both decreased the levels of microorganisms known to contribute to bad breath. It’s a small study, so additional research is needed to support the finding.
It may help rehydrate your mouth
If you’ve been mouth breathing all night long, Dr. Burhenne recommends oil pulling in the morning. It may break down the thick biofilm that formed overnight due to mouth dryness and a lack of saliva.
If you breathe through your mouth overnight, “first thing when you wake up, do five to 10 minutes of oil pulling in the morning to help restore the pH and the viscosity of the saliva and rehydrate the mouth,” Dr. Burhenne says.
It may encourage good oral health
Oil pulling may promote good oral health, generally speaking, because it may reduce harmful bacteria. In the Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice study mentioned above, both mouthwash and coconut oil reduced the bacteria found in saliva.
Coconut oil could be especially beneficial because of its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Another thing about oil pulling is that it neutralizes the pH in the mouth, according to Dr. Burhenne. “As you get closer to acidic, lower pHs, in the mouth, that’s when teeth demineralize,” he says. That is, the acids in your mouth affect the enamel of your teeth, which loses minerals. And that can lead to tooth decay.
“Oil pull for three to five minutes will neutralize the pH in the mouth, [starting] almost immediately upon contact,” Dr. Burhenne says. “Of course, so will swishing with water. But the water will not break down the biofilm, so potentially it’s a great preventative oral hygiene technique.”
The only potential benefit that Dr. Messina sees is that people may pay more attention to their teeth because they don’t like the taste of the oil.
“People may then go and want to brush their teeth more or longer afterward to get rid of the taste, so if it increases their level of efficiency in oral hygiene, that might have a benefit,” he says. “We always want to get people to brush more effectively.”
That said, there are certainly easier ways to brush your teeth more without having to first rinse your mouth with oil, he notes.
What oil pulling can’t do
One of the biggest misconceptions about oil pulling is that it’s a miracle cure for any and all oral health problems. It might work, but according to Dr. Burhenne it’s more preventative, and certainly not a quick fix. And it’s absolutely not a replacement for visiting a dentist.
“That’s where it goes wrong,” Dr. Burhenne says. “A lot of people think, ‘I can just oil pull.’ They think that oil pulling can make it so that they don’t have to see a dentist.”
If you’re dealing with full-on gum disease, including symptoms like bone loss and tartar, oil pulling won’t cut it. You’ll need to see a dentist for mechanical removal, surgeries, and guidance, Dr. Burhenne says.
Dr. Messina adds that his main worry with oil pulling is that people may expect significant results, which won’t happen, and avoid actively treating an oral disease.
Does oil pulling whiten your teeth?
A lot of people are also under the impression that oil pulling whitens your teeth, but that’s not exactly the case, according to Dr. Burhenne.
“It can not physically alter or whiten the actual value or colour of your tooth. That’s impossible,” Dr. Burhenne says. “But it may change the reflectivity of your teeth.”
Very thick biofilms have a matte finish or surface. Get rid of that layer of buildup and your teeth may be shinier.
(Related: 10 Teeth Whitening Mistakes to Avoid)
Is oil pulling safe?
Dr. Messina says that oil pulling is not dangerous, unless it’s in place of regular brushing and flossing.
“If you’re foregoing something that actually does work in order to oil pull, which doesn’t have an effect, that would be a negative,” Dr. Messina says. “Otherwise, it doesn’t seem to have any negative effects.”
Some experts believe oil pulling can be harmful to the oral cavity, with side effects such as dry mouth, excessive thirst, and loss of sensation or taste in the mouth.
Oil pulling could have other negative potential side effects, including nausea, headache, tooth sensitivity, and a sore jaw, says dentist Jeffrey Sulitzer, the chief clinical officer of SmileDirectClub, a telehealth platform for dentistry.
It could be unsafe if you are allergic to the type of oil. You may also get an upset stomach if you swallow the oil after pulling.
“If you swallow this oil, that could really affect your stomach because in that oil, after you’ve been oil pulling for four to five minutes, there are a lot of cell membranes, a lot of cell debris, and that could cause a problem,” Dr. Burhenne says.
Don’t overdo it
People who overdo oil pulling take away the potential benefits, Dr. Burhenne says.
“People who oil pull too much can have sensitive teeth, and they could even demineralize their teeth by affecting or removing too much of the biofilm,” Dr. Burhenne says. “The biofilm is there to help the teeth maintain a state of calcification or mineralization, and it’s the bacteria in that biofilm that help the teeth remineralize after a demineralization event, like a very acidic or sugar meal or a dry mouth.”
Which type of oil should you use?
Coconut oil pulling is the most popular option for a variety of reasons: It’s easy to find, has a pleasant taste, and contains high amounts of antimicrobial lauric acid, according to research in the journal Cell Transplantation.
While coconut oil pulling is the most common, you can get the same desired effect with olive or sesame oil, according to Dr. Burhenne.
Other research comparing coconut oil pulling to other types is also promising. One 2018 study in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine found that coconut oil pulling is more effective than oil pulling with sesame oil to reduce gingivitis severity.
One thing to keep in mind—some oils, like sesame and coconut oil—can by pricey. Oil pulling may end up being more expensive than toothpaste and mouthwash, or at least an added expense when used in combination with those.
How to oil pull
Put about a tablespoon of oil in your mouth—less if your mouth is small. Trial and error will help you determine the right amount for you.
Swish the oil around. Some people swish for 15 to 20 minutes, but Dr. Burhenne says you can do so for about five minutes.
Spit the oil into a napkin or trashcan (if it goes down your sink, it can clog your pipes). Never swallow the oil.
The bottom line
The limited research on oil pulling and the experts’ mixed opinions make it hard to determine a steadfast ruling on this alternative treatment.
If you have good oral hygiene and regularly brush, floss, Waterpik, and use mouthwash, it’s unlikely you’ll benefit much from adding oil pulling to your routine. Experts disagree on the severity of potential negative side effects.
Remember, oil pulling is not a replacement for brushing, flossing, or visiting a dentist. And it can’t fix any serious oral health issues, such as gum disease. It’s safe to say oil pulling shouldn’t be your first line of defense.