What’s the Deal with Oil Pulling (and Is It Actually Healthy)?

We asked dentists for their take on this ancient oral care technique.

The world is basically divided into three groups: those who swear by oil pulling, those who think it’s wacky, and those who are reading this and thinking, “What the heck is oil pulling?”

For starters, let’s get on the same page about what oil pulling actually is. This practice is an ancient Ayurvedic method meant to clean and protect the teeth from oral diseases. Ayurvedic medicine refers to a 3,000-year-old medical system from ancient India, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. It is still incorporated into India’s modern medicine practices.

To “pull oil,” you take a swig of oil (yes, you read that right), and swish it around your teeth for about 15 to 20 minutes. Coconut, sesame, and sunflower oil are all common choices, not only for their pleasant flavor but also their alleged medicinal properties.

What Can Oil Pulling Do?

It’s controversial, but proponents of oil pulling say it has many benefits—an all-natural rival to today’s mouthwash and toothpaste. They claim it supports your overall oral health by whitening teeth, improving breath, removing harmful bacteria and plaque, and preventing diseases. Some even believe it helps remove toxins by getting them out of your mouth before they enter the rest of your body.

And science may be able to support some of these claims: A 2008 study found that sesame oil pulling for 40 days resulted in a 20 percent reduction in bacterial count, which then resulted in a reduction in cavities.

Another study from 2015 found that teenagers with gingivitis who did coconut oil pulling for 30 days were able to significantly reduce their plaque and gingivitis symptoms by 50 percent. (That just so happens to be the same amount by chlorhexidine mouthwash.)

But Don't Get Too Excited About Oil Pulling

While the aforementioned studies are promising, they may not paint the entire picture. “[The controversy] really comes down to small sample size in the studies and no clear results,” says Stacey M. Laskis, DDS, a dentist at Parkview Dentistry of Arizona. Laskis points out that one of the larger studies on oil pulling only includes 40 participants, hardly enough to be convincing or representative of the general population.

“The studies only conclude that it is as effective as brushing and rinsing,” says Dr. Laskis. “If so, you can get the same results in two minutes rather than 20 minutes.”

Mmkay, but the studies *do* find that oil pulling may lower bacteria on the teeth. So what’s really happening here?

Basically, swishing around oil helps loosen up plaque. Oil pulling for 15 minutes “dilutes plaque concentration in a way that doesn’t allow it to stick to your teeth,” says Bobbi Stanley, DDS, of Stanley Dentistry in North Carolina. That might explain the reduction in bacteria and plaque in the aforementioned studies.

But it’s not necessarily the oil that’s doing the work. “There’s nothing special about the oil or the swishing: You could see the same results doing that with water, or with alcohol-free mouthwash,” says Dr. Stanley.

In fact, simply drinking enough water can be an effective method in keeping your smile clean. Water helps you regularly rinse out food particles and other gunk from your teeth throughout the day, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). That keeps bacteria and plaque buildup low (which in term helps keep your breath fresh between brushing).

So, Is Oil Pulling Actually Healthy?

As of now, the position of the ADA is that “no reliable scientific studies” have proven oil pulling can actually prevent cavities, whiten your smile, or reduce your chances of oral diseases.

“There is no scientific evidence that shows that oil pulling does what it claims, but it may have been useful when this was the only thing available to use for oral healthcare,” says Michael Kim, DDS, dentist in Mequon, Wisconsin.

And let’s be honest: Flossing takes a fraction of the time and costs pennies compared to a jar of extra virgin coconut oil. “We dentists have a hard enough time getting our patients to brush for two minutes a day,” says Dr. Laskis. (Find out how bad it is to not brush your teeth twice a day here.)  

If you hate flossing with string, a water flosser might be the way to go. Those little spray devices that your dental hygienist uses during your annual cleaning? Yep, you can buy those for your home. Water flossers may be especially useful if you have braces or a permanent retainer that makes traditionally flossing a struggle.

That said, oil pulling isn’t exactly harmful. Your go-to routine should include brushing twice a day and flossing once a day, but if you want to try oil pulling, it won’t hurt.

“If patients are interested in oil pulling, I would recommend that oil pulling be used as an adjunct to brushing and flossing, and not as a substitute,” says Dr. Kim.

For your best oral health, take a look at these topics.