Oil Pulling: Snake oil or a worthwhile health practice?

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By LAURÉN A. DOAMEKPOR, Ph.D. Updated June 2014.

The latest health and beauty trend called “oil pulling” may seem a little unusual. But, it has been in the news lately, all over YouTube, and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and even Shailene Woodley, who stars in the film “Divergent,” have tried it and swear by its health and beauty benefits.  So what exactly is oil pulling?

Oil pulling is an Indian practice that is over 3,000 years-old. It is supposed to improve oral health by strengthening teeth and gums and preventing decay and bleeding gums.1 The internet is full of stories and testimonials from people who use this method to whiten their teeth and improve overall oral health. Some people even say that it clears up acne!

What does oil pulling involve?

Oil pulling involves swishing a tablespoon of a cold-pressed organic oil (an oil that has not been extracted using chemicals) like sesame or coconut oil in your mouth for 10-15 minutes. It’s similar to using mouthwash without the gargling. The oil mixes with your saliva and is supposed to go from clear to a milky white color. After the oil turns white, you spit it out. Not down the sink, though; the oil could clog the drain. Many oil pullers suggest spitting it out in a cup and throwing it in the trash. Online personal testimonials recommend oil pulling first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, and before brushing your teeth to get the best results.

No one fully understands how or why oil pulling works. How exactly does it get your pearly whites sparkling and rid your mouth of bad bacteria? Some studies suggest that the lipids in the oil pull out the toxins and bad bacteria in your mouth which then bind to the lipids. This is why, after swishing, you don’t want to swallow—you would be swallowing oil containing toxins and bacteria.2

Is there any truth to the benefits of oil pulling?

It’s impossible to say. A search for the term “oil pulling” on credible websites like those of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Oral Health’s and the National Institute of Health turned up empty.

There is little to no scientific research on the oral health benefits of oil pulling. The little research that has been published are small studies, published in international or Indian journals and dates back to 2008 and 2009. A typical study looked at 20 adolescent boys with gingivitis from plaque from a school in Chennai, India. Ten of the boys oil pulled for 10 minutes a day for a total of 2 weeks and the other ten used chlorhexidine (a chemical that treats gingivitis) mouth wash before brushing their teeth. The authors found that the group of boys who oil pulled with sesame oil had less plaque and gingivitis.3 Another study using a sample of 20 boys from the same school in India, found that the boys who oil pulled had a reduction in the number of Streptococcus mutans (bacteria in the mouth that cause tooth decay) compared to boys that used the mouth wash.4

These small studies leave many unanswered questions. What are the long term consequences of swishing oil in your mouth are for your teeth, gums and breathe? Regardless of what your dentist might think or recommend, is there any evidence of either benefit or harm from oil pulling?

Bottom line

Oil pulling may have some appeal as a “natural” way to improve your oral health, and celebrity endorsements don’t hurt either. But it’s still unclear whether or how the practice actually works to get rid of bad bacteria in our mouths. It’s also unknown what the long term effects on oral and overall health may be. There is definitely a need for more scientific research to determine if oil pulling works—and if it does, how—and what the long term benefits and consequences are.

Whether you try oil pulling or not, you should still brush your teeth twice a day, floss every day, and see your dentist at least twice a year. No further study is needed to know how important those are for healthy gums and teeth.

  1. Bethesda M. A Closer Look at Ayurvedic Medicine. Focus on Complementary and Alternative Medicine. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, US National Institutes of Health, US National Institutes of Health. 2006;XII(4)  
  2. Hebbar A, Keluskar V, Shetti AJ. Oil pulling – Unraveling the path to mystic cure. Int Oral Health Case Report. JIOH. 2010;10-13.  
  3. Asokan S, Emmadi P, Chamundeswari R. Effect of oil pulling on plaque induced gingivitis: A randomized, controlled, triple-blind study. Indian J Dent Res 2009;20:47-51.  
  4. Asokan SA, Rathan JA, Muthu MSB. Effect of oil pulling on Streptococcus mutans count in plaque and saliva using Dentocult SM Strip mutans test: a randomized, controlled, triple-blind study. J of the Indian Society of Pedodontics & Preventive Dentistry. 2008;26:12-17.