Your overall health is tied to your oral health, so tending to your teeth and gums should be an integral part of your day. While the key to a healthy mouth lies in a healthy diet based on whole foods — and minimal refined sugars — techniques such as oil pulling can also be used to support oral health.
While in the U.S. tooth brushing and flossing are the predominant tools used to mechanically remove debris from the teeth, tongue and gums, oil pulling has been used as a traditional Ayurvedic remedy in India since ancient times. According to Ayurvedic tradition, oil pulling may improve more than 30 systemic diseases while offering a range of benefits for the mouth, including:1
- Reduced inflammation and bleeding
- Reduced bad breath
- Improved oral hygiene and whiter teeth
- Relief from dry mouth/throat and chapped lips
- Stronger muscles and jaws in the oral cavity
Part of what makes oil pulling so attractive as an adjunct for oral health is its simplicity. Organic oils commonly used for oil pulling include sunflower oil, sesame oil and coconut oil, although cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is my top choice, for reasons I’ll explain below.
Take a small amount of the oil and swish it around your mouth, “pulling” it between your teeth and ensuring it moves around your entire mouth. After about 20 minutes, spit the oil out into the garbage. You can use oil pulling daily along with regular brushing and flossing.
Oil Pulling May Improve Oral Health
U.K. researchers conducted a systematic review to look into the effect of oil pulling with coconut oil on oral health, noting that, “As coconut oil is a readily accessible and cheap material for most, research into the effectiveness and efficacy of its use in the oil pulling procedure is of clinical merit.”2 They found coconut oil significantly lowered plaque index scores compared to a control group, while also reducing bacterial colony counts in saliva.
Notably, they also found that coconut oil pulling worked as well as chlorhexidine mouthwash for plaque score, gingival index score and bleeding-on-probing. Chlorhexidine has been used in dental practice since 1970 and has broad-spectrum antibacterial activity.3
The antiseptic has been found to reduce bacteria associated with periodontal disease and dental caries, as well as reducing bad breath,4 but it has adverse effects, not only indiscriminately killing beneficial bacteria in your mouth, thereby disturbing your oral microbiome, but also leading to taste disturbances, hypersensitivities and mucosal soreness and irritation.5 According to the study:6
“Supporters of coconut oil pulling may see these adverse effects of using chlorhexidine mouthwash as another reason to promote the use of coconut oil; unfortunately none of these effects were demonstrated in the included studies, most likely due to the short study durations.”
Overall, however, they concluded that coconut oil pulling appears to be useful to improve oral health and dental hygiene, although further studies are needed.
Oil Pulling Works as Well as or Better Than Regular Mouthwash
If you’ve been using commercial mouthwash to keep your mouth fresh, switching to oil pulling may give you similar results with less risk. Researchers with Saveetha University in India also compared the effectiveness of oil pulling and mouthwash.7 In this case, the oil pulling was done using gingelly oil, which comes from the same seed as sesame oil but is processed slightly differently.8
The oil pulling and mouthwash were nearly equal in terms of effectiveness, with the oil pulling having an effectiveness score of 49% compared to 51% for mouthwash. When it came to safety, however, oil pulling was superior, with a score of 61% compared to 39% for mouthwash.
In the book “Natural Oral Care in Dental Therapy,” it’s further noted, “There is mounting evidence of oil pulling being as good as many other chemical‐containing ointments, toothpastes or mouthwashes in control of oral problems with no untoward side effects.”9
On the contrary, twice-daily use of mouthwash has been linked to an increased risk of prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes by affecting oral bacteria critical for the formation of nitric oxide, which predisposes individuals to metabolic disorders like diabetes.10
Researchers have also looked at the effects of oil pulling on Streptococcus mutans, bacteria responsible for cavities. Sixty Egyptian children between the ages of 5 and 10 were divided into two groups. One group rinsed with 10 milliliters (ml) of coconut oil three times a day for two weeks for one minute, while the other group rinsed with chlorhexidine mouthwash of the same dosage.
Streptococcus mutans were reduced significantly in both groups, but the reduction was greater in the oil pulling group. Writing in the Al-Azhar Dental Journal for Girls, the researchers concluded, “Use of coconut oil pulling therapy may be used as preventive therapy at home to maintain oral hygiene as it is natural, safe and has no side effects.”11
Coconut Oil Reduces Plaque and Gingivitis
Coconut oil is an ideal oil for oil pulling due to its antimicrobial effects.12 Coconut oil is antibacterial and antiviral and contains 92% saturated fats, 49% of which are the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial medium chain saturated fat lauric acid.
“Medium chain saturates and their derived products (e.g., monoglycerides) are effective in destroying a wide range of bacteria (lipid coated bacteria) demolishing their lipidic membrane,” researchers explained in the European Journal of Dentistry. “They can be effective, for instance, against the bacteria causing gastric ulcer, sinusitis, food poisoning, urinary tract infections and caries.”13
The oil may also be effective against gingivitis, an inflammatory disease caused by an accumulation of plaque, or bacteria, on the teeth that often leads to bleeding gums. If left untreated, it can lead to periodontitis, which is a more serious infection that can lead to teeth loss. In a pilot study of 20 people with plaque-induced gingivitis, coconut oil was used as a mouthwash daily for 30 days.
A control group carried out normal daily oral health procedures but without coconut oil. Both plaque and bleeding decreased in the groups, but the coconut oil group had a more significant decline, showing promise for reducing plaque formation and gingivitis.14
Another study also added coconut oil pulling to the normal oral hygiene procedures of middle-aged adults with plaque-induced gingivitis. The group that used oil pulling in addition to regular brushing had a significantly greater decline in gingivitis and plaque after six weeks.15
What Makes Coconut Oil Pulling so Effective?
Coconut oil makes an important dietary staple in Sri Lanka and South Asian diets. In the U.S., it’s been vilified for its high content of saturated fat, despite the fact that it has a number of health benefits when added to the diet, including the following properties:16
In terms of oil pulling, however, there are many theories about what makes it so effective for oral health. Bacteria are the root cause of both bad breath and cavity formation in your teeth. They have membranes that are fat soluble and break down with the mechanical action of swishing and pulling oil.
Research demonstrates that pulling oils improves the saponification, or breakdown of bacterial membranes.17 It’s also been suggested that it may kill microorganisms that are damaging cells, or reduce plaque and bacterial cohesion via the oily film that covers your teeth and gums.18
Oil pulling is also an effective mechanical method of cleansing your teeth and the smallest crevices along your molars that the bristles of your brush cannot reach. Your dentist may have recommended using sealants on your teeth to help prevent decay from forming in these tiny areas.
“Coconut oil also contains lauric acid that together with sodium hydroxide and bicarbonates creates a substance that reduces adhesion and plaque accumulation, having a cleaning action,” researchers explained in the European Journal of Dentistry. “Despite its ambiguous mechanism of action, some studies have clearly demonstrated an anti-inflammatory effect, together with the one against adhesion/aggregation of plaque.”19
Traditionally, oil pulling also has merit in Ayurveda as a method for purifying your entire body, as it exposes your tongue to the oil while swishing.
“It holds that each section of the tongue is connected to a different organ such as to the kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, small intestines, stomach, colon and spine, similarly to reflexology and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine),” according to a review in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine.20
Oil Pulling for 20 Minutes a Day
In my interview with Dr. Gerry Curatola, founder of Rejuvenation Dentistry who has over 30 years’ experience in biological dentistry, he discusses that achieving oral health is really about promoting balance among the bacteria in your mouth. So, it could be argued that even coconut oil, a natural antimicrobial, should be used with caution.
However, while coconut oil does have a natural detergent effect, it doesn’t do the damage chemical detergents do. Coconut oil also contains a number of valuable nutrients helping to promote oral health. “If you don’t have a good nutritional that promotes oral microbiome homeostasis, coconut oil pulling is great,” Curatola says.
Oil pulling only requires a small amount of oil — 1 tablespoon for adults and 1 teaspoon for a child — and should be done for at least 20 minutes daily for best results:21
“In the oil pulling procedure, the oil has to be kept in the mouth for the duration of 20 minutes, preferably in the morning before breakfast. The quantity for adults is equal to a tablespoon, for children to a teaspoon.
The oil, during the rinsing, has to be pulled and forced in between all the teeth and brought to contact to all the parts of the mouth. At the end of this procedure, if it has been performed properly, the aspect of the oil should be thin, viscous, and milky. Afterward, it has to be spat out and the mouth has to be rinsed with warm water.”
If you’ve never tried oil pulling before, you may need to work your way up to 20 minutes a day, but soon you’ll likely experience the benefits of improved oral health and hygiene using this age-old technique that’s making a modern comeback.