By: Tim Ellis

Oil-Pulling is the act of filling your mouth with a tablespoon of food based oil, swish it around your mouth for 10-20 minutes, and then you spit it in to the trash.  While a quick online search will yield countless claims on a number of health benefits, the only potential benefit appears to be oral health.  2 small studies done in 2008 and 2011 have shown using this method of mouth cleaning does cause a reduction in your plaque index, and helps reduce gingivitis.  That being said, so does over-the-counter mouthwash.  With no definitive studies showing how this method of oral sanitizing actually works, let’s take a closer look at what you’re doing and why Gwyneth Paltrow says; “It’s amazing”!

Oil pulling can be traced back to around 3500 years ago, to a Hindu system of medicine known as Ayurveda.  This method, translated to “life-knowledge”, aimed at achieving homeostasis within the body by treating the imbalances within ones “bodily humors”.   Known as Doshas, the system states, the dominant Dosha in each individual and their surrounding environment determines ones health, including dental health.  It’s thought the remedy whitens teeth, prevents tooth decay, oral malodaor, bleeding gums and throat dryness.  It also helps with strengthening teeth, gums and the jaw.

More recently, the trend is catching on as a more natural way to clean your mouth and teeth.

The act is seemingly, yet suspiciously, simple.  Fill your mouth with a tablespoon of food based oil, preferably one of the healthy oils like sesame or coconut, and swish it around until it becomes milky-white.  Then you will need to spit it in the trash can.  Don’t swallow it, or put it down the drain.  It’s never a good idea to drink bacterial-laden fat!  You’ll just end up clogging both bodily and household pipes.

There are several theories as to why this might help with oral are.  They all seem to revolve around ridding the mouth of unhealthy bacteria.

The act of swishing any liquid around, will inevitably help dislodge any bacteria, or left over food, from all the tiny cracks and crevices of your mouth .  Using oil to do this, instead of plain water, is touted to provide several other benefits.  Some more scientific than others.

The less scientific include; oil helps provide a surface layer on the structures of the mouth, preventing any bacteria from adhering.  Using oil increases salivary excretion, thereby turning the salivary glands into a detoxifying organ.  Finally, oil helps moisturize the gums, helping with dry mouth.  Dry mouth has long been known to increase bacterial growth.

The most interesting look at oils and why they help rid the mouth of unwanted bacteria, comes from Dr.’s Sroisiri and Boonyanit Thaweboon and Dr. Jurai Nakaparksin in their study published in the Asia Journal of Public Health in 2011.

Titled “Effect of Oil-Pulling on Oral Microorganisms in Biofilm Models”,  they took the two most common types of bacteria and the most common type of fungus in your mouth (Streptococcus mutans, Lactobacillus casei and Candida albicans) and exposed them to different types of food oils.  What they found was, different oils affected the bacteria and fungus differently.

Coconut oil exhibited antimicrobial activity against S. mutans and C. albicans, whereas sesame oil only had antimicrobial activity against S. mutans.  Sunflower oil was only affective against fungal activity and didn’t deter bacteria at all.  Many oils like corn, palm, rice bran, and soy bean, ended up not providing any benefit against bacteria or fungus.  For a full list of oils tested and their results, be sure to look at the published study in our references. 

One of their theories on why these oils might help with removing bacteria and other microorganisms revolves around a process known as alkali hydrolysis.  Specifically, “alkali hydrolysis of oil by bicarbonates in saliva”.  Basically meaning the swishing of your saliva turns the oil in to soap.  They state, “These soaps are good cleansing agents and might be effective in removing microorganisms or plaque materials”.

While there seems to be evidence that oil pulling actually does provide some benefit, it isn’t clear whether standard brushing and rinsing with mouthwash doesn’t provide the same, if not better, benefits.  As Dr. Jessica T Emery, DMD, of Chicago states, “If patients prefer holistic approaches, I recommend letting them give oil pulling a try….. I’m certain that oil pulling can’t hurt you.  When used in conjunction with regular brushing and flossing, I’m convinced it will actually help you”.

For those choosing this more natural approach to oral health, some proclaim there are other advantages over commercial mouthwashes.  There’s no staining.  Some tout there is no lingering after taste, has the potential to reduce allergic reactions compared to commercial options and the oils are most likely readily available in the house.  In less developed countries, where there isn’t any other options, this might be the only choice people have.

In the end, almost every dentist will tell you, more research and better controlled studies are needed before we know the exact ramifications of oil-pulling and its long term side effects.  Given this, I take a more practical view on the topic.

 Steve Jobs once stated, “My favorite things in life don’t cost any money.  It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time.”  Since oil pulling takes between 10-20 minutes, and the average person takes only 4 to use standard brushing and rinsing techniques, I’ll take the latter approach.  The extra time saved can be used performing other, more holistic approaches to health.  Like the heart healthy act of bedroom gymnastics.  The average person takes only 7 minutes, leaving just enough cuddle time for the ladies.  As Gwyneth said, “It’s amazing”!