I Tried Coconut Oil For A Whiter Smile & Here's What I Learned
In the age of Instagram, one thing I feel I'm always looking for is a whiter smile—whether that's through filtering my photos or a heavy-duty toothpaste. For years, I've heard from my naturally inclined friends to try coconut oil, whether that be through naturally formulated products or just straight oil-pulling. And after doing some pretty intense research for this story on the benefits of coconut oil for your hair, I decided to give it a go. (Truly, it sounds like a miracle ingredient.)
Here's the problem, though, unlike the decent amount of studies done on coconut oil in general, there's not a lot of research about its use in oral care. So to figure out what the deal was, I reached out to a holistic dentist to get the scoop.
"I can respond anecdotally about coconut oil's benefits: I absolutely believe it has whitening properties, can decreased sensitivity, and there's even the idea that it can deter cavities from getting worse," says holistic dentist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine Ester Rubin, who also notes there are no studies or data on this at the moment. "And what's so fascinating about the whitening claims is that from what I can tell, it's not removing extrinsic stains on enamel—which can be removed with brushing—but it's helping the dentin, which is the layer under the enamel that's more difficult to treat."
I was intrigued.
So first up: oil pulling. Ever since the practice broke the internet a few years ago, I made a pact with myself that I'd never try it. I am one to shun most things that the internet loves—even if it's something that I'd typically like. Oil pulling is an ancient ayurvedic tradition: The idea is that by swishing around oil in your mouth for 20 or so minutes, you are pulling out impurities in the mouth and body as a whole. It's also said to reduce plaque (there's a small study that suggests it might). Sesame seed oil is the more traditional option, but many chose coconut oil since it's antibacterial, has brightening claims, and is more palatable. The technique that most people suggest is taking a tablespoon or less of the oil and gently work it around in your mouth. After, spit it out (in the trash, not the drain), and remove any residue by gargling warm saltwater, then brushing as normal.
And I have to admit, I didn't love this. Twenty minutes is a long time to do anything, especially in the morning on an empty stomach. I tried to distract myself by answering emails or while in the shower, but all I could think while doing it was I can't believe it hasn't been 20 minutes yet! I also was not prepared for the oil to "expand" in your mouth. (It's said it does this because it is collecting toxins.) The sensation just did not sit well with me.
However, a simpler option that Rubin recommends for patients who also don't care for pulling: Dip your toothbrush in coconut oil, brush around for 2 minutes, rinse, and then brush as normal. This was something I could actually get into the habit of doing—while it might not be as effective as standard pulling, it is at least something I would do regularly enough to see a difference.
The next two options were much easier: Hello Fluoride-Free Antiplaque and Whitening Toothpaste and Dr. Ginger's Coconut Oil Whitening Pen. The first, a whitening toothpaste made with coconut oil, tea tree oil, and peppermint. It was the easiest of my new habits, as it just involved buying a new tube of toothpaste, which I needed anyway. However, I wasn't so sure it was the coconut oil that had the whitening claims (the brand said it's included to moisturize your gums).
Rubin had similar thoughts about pastes in general: "I do tell patients to not rely on toothpastes for getting healthy ingredients into your gums, as the concentration in it is so low that it's likely not doing anything major." Also: Just brushing regularly removes surface stains, like coffee or wine.
The pen was the element that was most similar to the more traditional teeth-whitening methods. As a natural alternative to those chemical-laden whitening gels and strips, the whitening pen just felt better than the other options I've tried in the past. As a teen I remember painting my teeth with a goopy, terrible-tasting mess or sloppily trying to apply the gel strips. They were a pain, and often, literally: Even the most gentle of these formulas made my gums and teeth sensitive.
Not this option: It tasted great, was effortless to apply, and didn't make my teeth ache after. It comes in a bamboo tube, and you just apply the formula with the wand in a circular motion. Afterward, you do have to keep smiling for a full minute while it dries, but after dealing with 20 minutes of oil pulling, that felt like nothing.
Overall, I saw an impressive improvement from my threefold approach. It was a shade or two whiter, noticeably. I even had a few compliments on my teeth from friends. The pen was likely doing the heavy lifting as it was more specifically formulated for stain removal, but I will likely keep these habits in my rotation, not regularly, but whenever I need a touch-up.
Oh, and the last step? Well, it's sort of cheating, but it works. It's an old makeup artist hack: Wear lipstick with blue undertones, which will make your teeth appear whiter. It works due to basic color theory—blue cancels out yellow. So if you pick a lip shade with blue tones, it will neutralize any yellow on your teeth. And just so I could be consistent with my coconut oil trend, Bite Beauty Amuse Bouche Liquified Lipstick in Braised is also made with the hydrating oil—and the rich red shade? It's positively brilliant.
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Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director at mindbodygreen. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She has worked at many top publications and brands including Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends and updates in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as travel, financial wellness, and parenting. She has reported on the intricacies of product formulations, the diversification of the beauty industry, and and in-depth look on how to treat acne from the inside, out (after a decade-long struggle with the skin condition herself). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.