Proponents of oil pulling say that the dental hygiene practice balances the bacteria in your mouth while preventing plaque formation and cavities. Here's what a dentist has to say.
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You might faithfully swish mouthwash after brushing, but some types of mouthwash might cause more trouble for your oral health. Antiseptic mouthwash is designed to kill germs in your mouth. However, it may kill all of the bacteria in your mouth—good and bad—at least in the short term. "The problem is [shortly after using mouthwash] anaerobic bacteria grow back faster than the aerobic bacteria—and anaerobic bacteria are more capable of causing disease," says Mark Burhenne, D.D.S., a general dentist and co-creator of Ask the Dentist. (You can also find him on TikTok @askthedentist.)

Immediately after swishing with and spitting out your favorite over-the-counter antiseptic mouthwash, your mouth microbiome is out of balance (scientists call this dysbiosis), with higher levels of disease-causing bacteria. Now duplicate that day after day, and your oral microbiome will increasingly become out of balance.

To restore the proper balance of oral bacteria and maintain good tooth and gum health, some experts, like Burhenne, recommend oil pulling, a practice that's believed to help remove the harmful toxins from your mouth without disrupting your oral microbiome.

So, What Is Oil Pulling?

Oil pulling is actually just swishing oil in your mouth. Doing so pulls and forces the oil in between all of your teeth. If done correctly, the oil thins and turns milky white. When you're done, you spit the oil into a trash can or paper towel. Then, some experts recommend rinsing your mouth with warm saline water or tap water. Oil pulling dates back thousands of years, having originated in India as an ayurvedic practice.

The Potential Benefits of Oil Pulling

Research suggests that it can take as little as two weeks and up to 45 days to see the benefits of oil pulling, per a study in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. Oil pulling may help coat the teeth and gums to inhibit bacterial growth and plaque formation. What's more, specific oils have certain health-promoting qualities. For instance, coconut oil contains lauric acid that has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Proponents say oil pulling may deliver a long list of potential benefits:

  • Resolve dry mouth and throat
  • Resolve chapped lips
  • Whiten teeth
  • Freshen breath
  • Reduce plaque
  • Decrease anaerobic and other disease-causing bacteria
  • Strengthen oral cavity muscles
  • Prevent dental caries (aka tooth decay), gingivitis, oral candidiasis and periodontitis
  • Reduce tooth pain

However, in terms of scientific trials performed to assess these potential benefits, we need more research. In a systematic review in 2020 of four studies examining the effects of oil pulling with coconut oil on dental hygiene, the authors didn't come to much of a conclusion. While some data suggested that oil pulling with coconut oil may help reduce plaque compared to a control group, there's just not enough high-quality evidence to make a conclusion. In order to determine if oil pulling with coconut oil is effective, we need larger numbers of people in these studies with a longer duration.

How to Oil Pull

If you're interested in trying oil pulling, here's how to start. First, choose your oil (more on that below.) Next, swish about 1 tablespoon of oil in your mouth for up to 20 minutes. That's a long time. So, some experts, including Burhenne, say as little as three to four minutes is sufficient.

It's recommended to oil pull each morning on an empty stomach before brushing your teeth. "That's when your mouth is driest and that can help reestablish the protective biofilm on teeth," says Burhenne. Do not swallow the oil (it contains bacteria and toxins), and also don't spit the oil into the sink, as it can clog pipes. Instead, spit it into a trash can or paper towel.

After spitting out the oil, thoroughly rinse your mouth with warm saline water or tap water.

Side Effects of Oil Pulling

While there are many suggested benefits of oil pulling, the American Dental Association doesn't recommend the practice, as they say that there is a lack of scientific evidence to support it. And remember, oil pulling is not a substitute for proven oral hygiene practices, such as brushing and flossing. Still, it won't harm you; this is something you can safely try and add into your existing routine, but speak with your dentist first. If you currently use an antiseptic mouthwash, this is another good opportunity to ask your dentist if they'd recommend oil pulling instead.

One study found a potential negative side effect to oil pulling: pneumonia. This can develop if the oil is accidentally aspirated (i.e., you breathe the oil into your airway and lungs), and symptoms include weight loss, cough, difficulty breathing and chest pain. However, the people who developed this condition also had swallowing dysfunctions that put them at an increased risk for aspiration in general. If you have a condition that makes aspiration more likely, check in with your doctor before oil pulling.

The Best Oil to Use for Oil Pulling

Sesame oil is the traditional oil used for oil pulling; however, olive and sunflower oils are also commonly used. Burhenne prefers another oil: Coconut oil. Specifically, he recommends using cold-pressed coconut oil. Not only does it pack those antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory compounds, but it's tasty, too.

The Bottom Line

Despite having being practiced for thousands of years, oil pulling has limited scientific evidence on its efficacy. Before making a change to your oral health routine, especially if it's one specifically recommended by your dentist, check in with your dentist to see if it's safe and recommended for you. And, of course, don't forget to brush and floss your teeth regularly, even if you oil pull.