With endorsements coming from celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and the Olsen twins, you might find it tempting to try oil pulling, a centuries-old Indian practice that’s gained lots of attention in wellness circles in recent years.
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For centuries, people used this practice every day to prevent tooth decay, bad breath, bleeding gums, throat dryness and cracked lips. Enthusiastic proponents of modern oil pulling claim it cures everything from hangovers and diabetes to acne.
So, what’s true, what’s false, and what’s all of that oil doing to your teeth?
What is oil pulling?
Oil pulling involves swishing a teaspoon of oil in your mouth for 20 minutes every day, then spitting it out. The traditional Ayurvedic method calls for sesame oil, but many contemporary oil pullers prefer coconut.
While less popular now than it was a few years ago, social media influencers still extoll the practice’s purported health benefits. But the evidence-based bottom line on oil pulling is this: Oil pulling can’t substitute for brushing twice a day and flossing.
In fact, there’s no evidence that oil pulling actually cures anything. But wait! While the practice was undeniably overhyped over the past several years, it does appear to have a few benefits.
Benefits of oil pulling
Oil pulling may not be a cure-all, but it’s not a joke either. In fact, the practice may end up occupying a unique place in the world of oral hygiene. According to a 2017 study, oil pulling could be a useful preventive home therapy for maintaining oral hygiene — especially in developing countries with limited access to products like mouthwash.
That’s because, as another 2017 study found, when done correctly and regularly (and in concert with brushing and flossing), oil pulling can actually improve your oral hygiene.
Prevents plaque and bacteria
There’s some evidence that oil pulling, particularly with coconut oil, could inhibit plaque formation, says wellness and preventative medicine specialist Sandra Darling, DO. That evidence derives, in part, from a 2020 study.
And a 2008 study found that oil pulling is as effective as rinsing with mouthwash to maintain and improve oral health. The study examined levels of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria commonly found in the mouth that causes tooth decay.
Preserves gum health
Don’t stop brushing
Again, it’s important to restate that oil pulling shouldn’t take the place of good, consistent dental hygiene, Dr. Darling says. That means brushing twice a day for two minutes and flossing one to two times daily.
No support for other health claims
Oil pulling isn’t going to whiten your teeth, clear your sinuses or cure your diabetes, despite what advocates claim.
“There is no research to support all of these other health claims,” Dr. Darling notes.
“You can make the stretch that oral health can support systemic health — that there are benefits downstream,” she adds, “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.”
How to oil pull
If you want to give the practice a try, take these steps:
- Swish approximately 1 teaspoon of coconut oil (or sesame oil, if you prefer) in your mouth for 20 minutes. Don’t swallow any; just move it around like you would a traditional mouthwash.
- After 20 minutes, spit the oil into your trash can. Remember: Putting oil down the drain will damage your pipes.
- Rinse your mouth out with water.
Should you incorporate oil pulling into your daily routine?
If you’re trying to decide whether or not to add oil pulling to your daily oral hygiene routine, ask yourself these questions:
- Are you already doing the basics? By the basics here, we mean brushing with a fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day for two minutes, as well as flossing one to two times every day. These practices are the foundation of good dental hygiene. If you’re not flossing every day (let’s be honest, most of us aren’t), you should establish that habit first.
- Do you have 20 minutes a day? Does brushing your teeth for two solid minutes — and flossing for another couple after that — feel like a chore? If it does, extending your oral care routine by another 20 minutes probably isn’t realistic.
- Do you use mouthwash? If you’re using a mouthwash, oil pulling is redundant. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for your mouth, but it might hurt your wallet.
Long story short: If oil pulling makes you happy, pull away! It’s certainly not going to hurt you.