How Oil Pulling Works

Oil pulling involves swishing oil around in your mouth, similar to the way you would mouthwash, though with less force and for a longer duration of time.
Oil pulling involves swishing oil around in your mouth, similar to the way you would mouthwash, though with less force and for a longer duration of time.
©George Doyle/iStock/Thinkstock

Most American adults have some symptoms of gum disease, even if just mildly, but it's not gingivitis that's on their minds -- it's white teeth. More than $1.4 billion is spent on over-the-counter teeth whitening products annually in the U.S. (and that doesn't count how much is spent on professional services to get the job done) [source: Mapes]. So what if you could whiten your teeth and kill cavity- and disease-causing bacteria at the same time? You'd sign up; we all would. That's the theory behind the practice of oil pulling -- rinsing your mouth with oil: whiter teeth, a healthier mouth and a healthier body.

Despite what's trending on the Internet, oil pulling isn't new; it's actually part of the tradition of Ayurvedic medicine. Unlike the Western style of medicine most of us are accustomed to, Ayurveda follows a more holistic approach to healing the body, tailoring remedies for your body type and constitution and generally focusing on preventing disease. It's been practiced for more than 3,000 years (and probably more like 5,000 years) in India. That makes traditional Indian medicine -- known as TIM -- one of the longest-lasting ways humans have practiced medicine over the ages.


Using oils on and in the body is not an unusual practice in Ayurvedic medicine; oils are used as part of a daily routine called dinacharya (as a part of daily morning massage, as well as a remedy for sore joints or irritated skin). So it's not a surprise to find traditional Ayurvedic writings mention swishing or retaining oil in your mouth -- practices called Kavala Graha and Gandusha -- as a way to prevent oral health problems such as bad breath (halitosis), cavities and gum disease (gingivitis). Kavala Graha and Gandusha differ slightly, but they're considering gargling methods rather than pulling. Gandusha involves filling your mouth with oil and holding it there for 3 minutes before spitting. Kavala Graha involves swishing with oil for 3 minutes before gargling and spitting.

Practicing today's version of oil pulling is similar, just without the gargling -- and you'll need supplies from your pantry more than you will from the oral care aisle.


Oil Pulling Technique

Oil pulling requires only a tablespoon of oil and 20 minutes of your time. The idea is to suck – or "pull" -- the oil between your teeth while you rinse with it. Spit out the leftover oil -- it will turn white and slightly foamy -- into a cup or into the trash (don't spit oil in the sink unless you want to explain to a plumber how your pipes became clogged), rinse and check out those pearly whites.

The oil you choose should be vegetable-based; in particular, sesame oil and coconut oils have both been found to have health benefits, including perhaps oral health benefits, but if olive or sunflower oil (for instance) are more palatable, they won't harm you.


There is no hard-and-fast rule as to exactly how much oil you should use, so try the recommended tablespoonful and decrease the amount if you have trouble with the mouth feel (or your gag reflex). Some adopters of the practice report it may take a few tries before getting used to how the oil feels. Some research also shows that you might see benefits in half the recommended rinse time, pulling for 10 minutes instead of the suggested 20.

Think of oil pulling as you would a mouthwash (except replace the minty-fresh liquid with a tablespoon of oil).

In addition to swishing away any food debris and plaque from the inside of your mouth, the treatment is considered to be antimicrobial, and is believed by some to be a remedy for about 30 systemic conditions. And there might be something to that -- poor oral health and periodontal disease have been linked to poor general health, overall, and may affect your body's ability to fight off infections and inflammatory diseases.

Patients with greater numbers of bad bacteria in their mouths are more likely to be diagnosed with atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries, in the neck [source: Griffin]. And it's not just heart health that's affected. Limited studies have found an association between the number of teeth you've lost and your risk of developing certain cancers: Gum disease is associated with a 30 percent greater risk of blood cancers, a 49 percent greater risk of kidney cancer and a 54 percent greater risk of pancreatic cancer in adult men [source: American Academy of Periodontology]. Additionally, the risk of esophageal cancer doubles in people who've lost between six and 15 teeth [source: Missih].


Effectiveness of Oil Pulling

Research suggests that oil pulling may indeed be an effective way to maintain a healthy smile.
Research suggests that oil pulling may indeed be an effective way to maintain a healthy smile.

There's some intriguing, yet preliminary, evidence to back up those of thousands of years of observational antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Research into the practice of oil pulling shows that indeed the daily swish may be as effective -- or almost as effective -- as chlorhexidine mouthwash against bad breath, plaque, receding gums and gum disease, as well as against the cavity-causing bacteria Streptococcus mutans (S. mutans) [sources: Asokan, Asokan, Asokan]. Let's put that into perspective. Chlorhexidine mouthwash is a prescription-grade antimicrobial and antiseptic (chemical) rinse used to treat gum disease. It's more powerful than an over-the-counter version intended to freshen your breath. And swishing with a tablespoon of sesame oil is observed to have similar benefits -- but unlike chlorhexidine mouthwash, which can be associated with staining, sesame oil used in oil pulling may whiten teeth.


Sesame oil (unrefined, and not toasted) is most traditionally used in oil pulling because this polyunsaturated fat has some notable health-beneficial components -- including magnesium (for lowering blood pressure and glucose levels, as well for good respiratory health), zinc and copper for bone health, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

The antimicrobial properties of coconut oil (which is solid at room temperature, be aware) are also showing promise in limited studies. One small study conducted at Loma Linda University found that the mouths of participants who pulled with sesame oil had five times fewer bad bacteria than those who pulled only with water; and pulling with coconut oil showed benefits, too. The mouths of these participants had two times fewer bacteria [source: Almendrala]. Additionally, coconut oil is full of lauric acid, a known antimicrobial agent.

While there's no evidence that the plaque in your mouth will dissolve in fat (as some proponents of oil pulling believe), some theories suggest that bacteria does attach to the oil-saliva mixture formed in your mouth. It may be attracted to the oil, but saliva does more than just keep your mouth moist. It's antibacterial, which means it fights germs in your mouth, and it's rich in salivary proteins that fight cavities, as well as minerals to strengthen tooth enamel [source: Dowd]. Adding oil seems to reduce the number of bacteria in the mouth, but it's important to note that studies to show the science behind the anecdotal evidence are limited. Ongoing research to prove any benefits oil pulling may have will need to be done with a wider audience. In the meantime, though, if you can stomach swishing with sesame or coconut oil, no harm done -- as long as you keep up with your regular brushing and flossing habits (and don't swallow that oil).


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Oil Pulling Works

If you consider that each tooth in your mouth has between 1,000 and 100,000 bacteria living on it -- and that's a clean mouth -- anything to help reduce the bacterial load isn't necessarily a bad thing, right? One thing is for sure, though; if you're going to try oil pulling, don't forgo your regular daily brushing and flossing routine.

Related Articles
More Great Links

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