Oil Pulling: Beneficial Therapy or Pulling Your Leg?

What is oil pulling?

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Oil pulling is a practice that originates from ancient Ayurvedic medicine that entails swishing oil in the mouth for its potential benefits on oral health.  The theory is that bacteria, due to the attraction between the lipid layer of their cell membrane and the oil, get pulled into the oil and can then be expelled.  It is also proposed that the oil coats the teeth and gums and thus inhibits plaque formation.

The proposed benefits:

Various articles/websites claim benefits among the following:

  • Prevention of gingivitis/periodontitis
  • Prevention of dental caries
  • Whiter teeth
  • Reduction of halitosis (bad breath)
  • Strengthening of oral cavity muscles
  • Soothing discomfort of dry mouth

The risks:

There is risk of lipid pneumonia, which is a rare disease caused by aspiration or inhalation of a fatty substance.  Because of this, I would say that oil pulling is contraindicated in kids 10 years or younger.  There is also the risk of an allergic reaction if you have an allergy to the oil you are using. 

The method described:

  • Swish 1-2 tablespoons of edible oil (i.e. sesame oil, coconut oil, olive oil) for 15-20 minutes.  Pull, push, and suck the oil between your teeth.
  • If you find it hard not to swallow the oil while swishing, try swishing with a smaller amount.
  • Spit out into a paper towel or into a trash can to avoid risk of clogging pipes with the oil.
  • Rinse with water.

What the studies show:

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As of now, there are a limited number of studies that have evaluated the effects of oil pulling.  Together these studies suggest that oil pulling is effective in reducing plaque, gingival inflammation, and bad breath

The studies that have investigated the potential effects of oil pulling on dental caries did so by evaluating counts of Streptococcus mutans (a bacteria that contributes to tooth decay).  The results of these studies are conflicting.  An in vitro study observed that both sesame and coconut oils possess antibacterial activity against S. mutans.  However, a recent study by Jauhari D et al found no significant decrease in S. mutans in study participants with oil pulling after 2 weeks.  Another study by Asokan S et al found that oil pulling with sesame oil did decrease S. mutans, but not as much as a chlorhexidine mouthwash (a rinse with known antimicrobial action). 

My takeaway:

Limited research shows oil pulling to be a promising adjunctive therapy to decrease plaque levels, gingival inflammation and bad breath.  If you are willing to invest the time and effort to practice oil pulling correctly and regularly, you may experience the benefits.  However, it is certainly not a therapy to be used in place of known/proven methods of debridement (brushing, flossing, and other methods to mechanically clean between the teeth).