Should You Really Try Oil Pulling? A Dentist Explains
As a leading integrative dentist, Dr. Mark Burhenne understands the importance of oral health for total wellness. That's why we're thrilled to have him as a mindbodygreen contributor and share his expertise on the latest in oral health.
Oil pulling is everywhere! Even though it's a 3,000-year-old technique taken from the ancient tradition of Ayurvedic medicine, you've probably noticed that it's become a huge trend lately, touted by practically every celebrity on Instagram.
What is it exactly? Oil pulling is swishing with coconut, sesame, or sunflower oil for about 20 minutes and then spitting it out. What does it do? The Internet is full of lofty claims about how it can do everything from detox your body to cure eczema and arthritis.
But as a dentist, do I think it's as good for you as everyone says? No — but I do think there can be some benefit to it.
Based on the scientific literature as well as my own personal experience, here are eight important things you need to know before trying oil pulling for yourself:
1. Oil pulling can’t replace flossing and brushing.
Just like you need to scrape the buildup on your bathtub, plaque needs to be mechanically removed by scraping it from tooth surfaces — this is done with floss, as well as a hygienist’s tools.
But what about all the studies that say oil pulling reduces plaque? Reducing plaque and removing it in a way that prevents gum disease are two different things. Swishing for 20 minutes with oil reduces plaque in the same way that swishing with water for 20 minutes reduces plaque — it dilutes the stickiness of plaque and its ability to stick on teeth.
If done daily, oil pulling could remove some tooth staining and reduce plaque and bacteria but not enough to prevent gum disease. That’s where flossing, brushing, and tongue scraping come in.
If you’re going to spend 20 minutes doing something for your health, perfect your brushing and flossing technique.
2. Oil pulling is a great replacement for mouthwash.
You know the mouthwash in your cabinet that proudly claims to kill 99% of germs? It also wipes out the good bacteria in your mouth, which is bad for dental health as well as the health of the rest of your body.
But if you love the feeling of mouthwash and are looking for a replacement, oil pulling can be a great alternative. Coconut oil, in particular, contains lauric acid, which has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
3. You should choose an organic, high-quality oil.
Oil pulling could be harmful if you don’t choose a high-quality, organic oil that's manufactured well. Case in point: A Harvard Medical School study found that one in five Ayurvedic herbal medical products produced in South Asia and sold in area stores contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, or arsenic.
4. Oil pulling probably won't whiten your teeth much.
Oil pulling for 20 to 30 minutes every day could help remove some teeth staining — but so does swishing with water for just as long.
5. Oil pulling is not a cure-all.
There's no scientific evidence to support the claims that oil pulling helps with diabetes, migraines, arthritis, eczema, or asthma.
If you’re going to spend 20 to 30 minutes doing something for your health, perfect your brushing and flossing technique. Many of us don’t stop to think about our technique, but I see the damaging effects of overbrushing all too often.
6. Oil pulling isn’t kid-friendly.
If oil goes down the wrong tube, it can cause lipoid pneumonia — an awfully silly risk to take for something that doesn't have much upside for a child’s dental health. The best thing parents can do for their children’s dental health is focus on raising great brushers and flossers using positive reinforcement.
7. Oil pulling is safe during pregnancy.
Oil pulling does not draw out toxins in the mouth. If you like oil pulling, there’s no reason to stop while you’re pregnant!
8. Oil pulling does not treat jaw pain.
Some have claimed that oil pulling helps manage their jaw pain, but swishing with oil doesn’t address the root causes that contribute to temporomandibular joint disorders.
If you're oil pulling and experiencing some jaw pain relief, keep in mind that this is masking the symptoms but failing to treat the root cause. If your house was on fire, you’d want to stop the fire — not just remove the smoke. Be sure to get a sleep study and work with your dentist if you’re grinding your teeth or experiencing jaw pain.
All said, I believe Ayurvedic techniques deserve more attention and scientific research. Just because the evidence is limited doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there getting benefit. Plus, there could be health benefits we simply haven’t proven yet with clinical studies.
I won’t be continuing with oil pulling since I don’t see enough of a benefit; however, everyone is different. As long as you’re aware of how to do it safely and always use a high-quality oil, I don’t see any downside to oil pulling.
A version of this piece originally appeared on AskTheDentist.