Examining the Benefits of Oil Pulling

Is it a miracle cure or a bunch of hype?

Valentine/Getty Images

Last year a close family member was dealing with a pretty nasty oral surgery. In helping research the procedure, I learned a lot about the mouth.

Poor oral health may contribute to health problems including heart disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s. My family’s dental history is spotty at best, so I decided it was time to fine-tune my own oral hygiene routine.

I did my research, consulted dentists, and formed a plan, which included upgrading to a Sonicare toothbrush, switching to an Environmental Working Group-approved toothpaste, and doubling my floss routine (morning and night).

But there was one more thing I was curious about. What’s all this hype about oil pulling?

So, What Is Oil Pulling?

It sounds like some tough job in the labor sector, but “oil pulling” just means rolling a bunch of oil around in your mouth. That’s it.

Swish about a tablespoon of edible oil (olive, coconut, sesame, sunflower) for 10-15 minutes once a day, and proponents say it’ll take care of bad breath, reduce your risk for gingivitis, whiten your teeth, and remedy maladies like acne and headaches by removing toxins from the body.

Does It Work?

Just because something got mentioned in an ancient Ayurvedic text doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good idea (see: bloodletting).

But there is some logic behind the claims. When fat in the oil meets certain compounds in the mouth, it makes a not-bad-tasting “soap,” which emulsifies and may clean the mouth by “scrubbing” away harmful micro-organisms. Oils also have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

What does science say?

Most studies on oil pulling are small, short, or incomplete. But that doesn’t mean the practice is useless. It just means we don’t know...yet.

Let’s take a look at some claims.

  • Eliminating bad breath : About 85 percent of halitosis originates in the mouth. Studies indicate that oil pulling is as effective at tackling bad breath as a common ingredient in mouthwash.
  • Reducing plaque : Can oil pulling reduce the buildup? One study indicates it’s as effective for plaque-induced gingivitis as a common mouthwash ingredient, but there’s no data yet on receding gums.
  • Whitening Teeth:  If oil pulling can remove gunk from your mouth, whitening may make sense. Unfortunately, there isn’t any published research on this, so all claims are anecdotal.
  • Preventing heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s : It’s a fact that poor oral health is linked to these problems (in fact, dentists often spot Type 2 diabetes before patients’ doctors do). But there’s no hard evidence that oil pulling can reduce your risk.  
  • Sjogren’s syndrome: In one small, informal experiment, oil pulling had some benefits for patients with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition that damages salivary glands and causes dry mouth.
  • Removing toxins from the blood/body : It may be in the realm of possibility for oil pulling to take toxins from the mouth, but oral fluids don’t seem to be an exit from the bloodstream. So any oil in your mouth won’t come into contact with blood, nor will it “extract” anything from it. Needless to say: no data.

    Why Oil Pulling May Be Worth a Try

    If you’re the kind of person who reads labels, you might be tempted to try oil pulling.  I was.

    Major toothpaste and mouthwash products contain junk like triclosan, FD&C colorings, and carbomer, chemicals we’d never tolerate in food but still swish around our mouths.

    In many cases, such chemicals don’t work as advertised. Some may be harmful to our health.

    The alcohol in mouthwash actually makes your breath worse over time. And the bleach in teeth whitening kits is more likely to damage your gums and tooth nerves than coconut oil.

    So now I do my oil pulling for 10 minutes every morning, while I get dressed and make my bed.

    I do think my breath is generally better, but since I also altered other aspects of my oral health routine, I can’t chalk it up to oil pulling alone.

    I didn’t expect sweeping changes. Rather, I was looking to improve my mouth care routine in total and nix unnecessary chemicals.

    Mission accomplished!

    Want to Try It? Here’s What to Do

    There’s no point in oil pulling if you can't get toothbrushing right. So start with the basics.

    Brush at least twice a day with a good toothbrush, and floss twice, too. Use a toothpaste with simple ingredients, and eat to support dental health.

    If you’re interested in oil pulling:

    • Make sure it’s right for you. Especially if you have sensitive teeth or gum recession, check with your dentist.

    • Consider doing a before-and-after test. See if your dentist notices a difference after a few months.

    • Experiment with oil type. Coconut oil in particular may have antimicrobial properties.

    • Try adding other essential oils. Many — like peppermint, thyme, lavender, tea tree, oregano, and basil — kill pathogens or stop bacteria from “sticking.”

    When it comes to dental health, you don't have to do it all at once. Figure out which small changes you can commit to now and start with those. You can build your routine up over time. 


    Artemis N. Holistic dental care. 2013. North Atlantic Books.

    Asokan S, et al. Effect of oil pulling on halitosis and microoganisms causing halitosis: a randomized controlled pilot trial. 2011;29:90-94.

    Bulger J. Dental Hygiene: Can mouthwash backfire on you?

    Edris, Amr E. Pharmaceutical and therapeutic potentials of essential oils and their individual volatile constituents: a review. Phytother Res. 2007 Apr;21(4):308-23.

    Singh A & Purohit B. Tooth brushing, oil pulling and tissue regeneration: A review of holistic approaches to oral health. Journal of Ayurveda & Integrative Medicine 2011;2:64-68.

    Takarada, K. et al. A comparison of the antibacterial efficacies of essential oils against oral pathogens. Oral Microbiology and Immunology 19 no.1 (February 2004): 61-64.

    Continue Reading