Is Oil-Pulling Your Best Choice for Dental Health?

Ancient folk practice is seeing a burst of interest
coconut oil on a spoon

With endorsements coming from celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, you might find it tempting to try oil-pulling – an Indian folk practice that is the latest homeopathic craze.

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Oil-pulling is swishing a teaspoon of oil in your mouth for 20 minutes every day, then spitting it out. The traditional oil to use is sesame. But many use coconut oil.

Thousands of YouTube videos extol its purported health benefits. A Google news search brings up thousands of stories – many written during the last few weeks.

But the evidence-based bottom line on oil-pulling is this:

  • It can’t substitute for brushing twice daily and flossing.
  • There’s no evidence it cures anything.

A traditional folk remedy

For centuries, people used this practice every day to prevent tooth decay, bad breath, bleeding gums, throat dryness and cracked lips.

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The more enthusiastic proponents of oil-pulling claim it cures everything from a hangover to diabetes or acne.

The evidence

There is some limited evidence that oil-pulling, particularly with coconut oil, could inhibit plaque formation, says integrative medicine specialist Lyla Blake-Gumbs, MD.

  • Oil-pulling is as effective as rinsing with mouthwash to maintain and improve oral health, a study from 2008 says. The study examined levels of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria commonly found in the mouth that causes tooth decay.
  • Oil-pulling with sesame oil and mouthwash both reduced gingivitis, says another study from 2009.
  • Oil-pulling could be a preventive home therapy to maintain oral hygiene – especially in developing countries, says a study from 2011. The study said, however, that further research should investigate exactly how oil-pulling works, as well as its long-term effects.

“There is some evidence that oil-pulling could be helpful in reducing the plaque index and the bacterial burden in the mouth,” Dr. Blake-Gumbs says.

It’s important to know, however, that oil-pulling should not take the place of good, consistent dental hygiene, Dr. Blake-Gumbs says. That means brushing twice a day for two minutes and flossing once daily.

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No support for other health claims

Oil-pulling is not going to whiten your teeth, clear your sinuses or cure your diabetes, despite what proponents say.

“There is no research to corroborate all of these other health claims,” Dr. Blake-Gumbs says.

“You can make the stretch that oral health can support systemic health – that there are benefits downstream,” she says.

“But to date there is no scientific research that oil-pulling is a direct mechanism of action for these other conditions. And no current evidence suggests that improving oral hygiene alone will improve diabetes or other chronic conditions.”

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