Oil pulling is a traditional oral health practice with origins in ancient India. In recent years, this practice has received significant media coverage regarding its reported health benefits—among them, removal of harmful bacteria from the mouth. Are the health claims true? Just what does this regimen involve? Should you try it? Here’s what you’ll want to know.
What is oil pulling?
Oil pulling is the daily practice of swishing about a tablespoon of coconut oil in your mouth for up to 20 minutes and spitting it out. Its reported health benefits include fresher breath, fewer bacteria in the mouth, better saliva production, and more moisture retention in the gums. The practice works by bringing oil—a fat—into contact with cells in the mouth, which are covered with a fatty membrane. “Most microorganisms inhabiting the mouth consist of a single cell,” says Jessica T. Emery, DMD. During oil pulling, these cells and the oil adhere to each other. Spitting out the oil also expels the microorganisms.
Does oil pulling work?
“Patients ask all the time if oil pulling works, and I say yes,” says Gio Iuculano, DDS. “But oil pulling should be complemented with a specific diet high in polyunsaturated fats; the good “healthy” fats that contain DHA.”
What is DHA?
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fat found in maternal milk and certain fish including salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring (easy to remember with the acronym SMASH), among others. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may wish to consult your doctor about supplemental sources of DHA.
What does this kind of diet have to do with oil pulling?
“Following this kind of diet helps you to develop the proper bacteria in your gut. These [gut] bacteria are what ultimately end up in your mouth,” explains Dr. Iuculano. “They either benefit you with healthy gums and teeth without decay, or they populate the mouth with the bad bacteria that can contribute to gum disease and cavities in the teeth.”
Should I try oil pulling?
If you’re interested, you can certainly give it a try. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Remember to keep flossing and brushing.
Floss your teeth once a day and brush them twice a day as usual. Oil pulling is not meant to replace these oral care methods, but to be an additional practice.
Use coconut oil.
Coconut oil holds a slight advantage over sesame and sunflower oils because it contains lauric acid, which has beneficial anti-microbial agents.
Only use a tablespoon or so of coconut oil.
If you try to use too much oil at once, you may end up spitting it out early or swallowing it.
Start with five minutes the first time.
As with anything new, it takes time to get used to oil pulling. Start by swishing gently for five minutes on your first try and gradually build up to 20 minutes at a time. If you attempt to swish too hard or too long at first, you could tire out your jaw.
When you’re done, aim into the garbage.
If the oil goes down the drain, it could clog your pipes.