Oil pulling claims to be a safe, effective alternative to traditional toothpaste and mouthwash regimens. But right now, little evidence supports its use in oral care.
If you’re a health-conscious person, you probably read labels. You check your food for artificial ingredients, chemicals, and toxins.
You want to know what’s in the stuff you’re eating, drinking, breathing, and putting on your body. You want to minimize your exposure to artificial ingredients and untested chemicals.
Like toothpaste and mouthwash
For example, look at your toothpaste and mouthwash. Read the ingredients on the tube, bottle, or package.
You might see ingredients like:
- polysorbate 80
- FD&C yellow 5
- sodium benzoate
- FD&C blue 1
- benzoic acid
- cetylpyridinium chloride
- sodium saccharin
- domiphen bromide
And you’re putting that stuff in your mouth.
You probably wouldn’t tolerate these chemicals in your food. But you’re still putting them in your mouth.
Many of these chemicals don’t even work as advertised.
Mouthwash is supposed to kill bacteria and freshen breath. Yet alcohol-based mouthwash can actually dry out your mouth and neutralize your oral mucous defense team.
This means that the more mouthwash you use, the more you rely on it. Your natural oral environment can’t do its job. Eventually you get more bacteria and worse breath.
And, while toothpaste ingredients appear to be a bit more harmless, some varieties can contain stuff that’s neutral at best. And downright harmful at worst.
Some of the ingredients to avoid include:
- FD&C colorings; and
Wondering how your products stack up? Check out the EWG Skin Deep database. You can search for the brands you use and check out their safety ratings.
As health-conscious consumers (or as folks who are working on that), we’re all trying to eliminate harmful chemicals from our environments. We all try to make smarter decisions about what we eat, drink, put on our body, and keep in our home.
Which is why, we think, oil pulling has seen a tremendous surge of popularity. Well, that, and the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow has been talking all about it.
So what is oil pulling?
While it sounds like some kind of labor-intensive job in the resource sector (kind of like grape stomping or cattle roping), oil pulling is pretty simple. It means swishing oil around in your mouth.
First thing in the morning, before eating or brushing your teeth:
- Take about a tablespoon of edible oil (such as olive, sesame, coconut, or sunflower oil).
- Put it in your mouth without swallowing.
- Swish it around for 10-15 minutes while doing your other bathroom business.
- At the end of the 10-15 minutes, spit it out.
- Rinse your mouth completely with warm water.
- Floss, brush, and get on with your day.
While oil pulling has seen a recent surge of popularity, it’s been around for a long, long time. Like, before mouthwash, dental floss, and toothpaste.
In fact, the Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita — which is over 2000 years old — describes oil pulling as a way to improve oral health and prevent bad breath.
(Sesame or sunflower oils were most commonly used.)
Of course, just because something was around a long time ago, and mentioned in an ancient Ayurvedic text, doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good idea (see: bloodletting).
So let’s see what modern science has to say about it.
How does oil pulling work?
In theory, oil pulling might help reduce plaque and gingivitis.
When the fat in oil meets certain compounds in the mouth, it forms a “soap”. Soaps emulsify and form surfactants, which may clean the mouth by “scrubbing” away harmful micro-organisms.
Oils also contain lignans, which have antioxidant and antimicrobial activity.
However, the research isn’t exactly convincing. Most studies looking at oil pulling are small, short, or incomplete.
But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. It just means that the science isn’t there yet.
What does the research say?
Bad breath (halitosis)
About 85% of bad breath comes from the mouth.
(The rest comes from the gastrointestinal tract, and could signal a health problem such as altered GI flora.)
Common factors that make it worse include gum disease, tooth disease, and tongue coating, as can chronic diseases such as diabetes, GI disease, and liver disease.
Studies indicate that oil pulling is as effective as a common ingredient in over-the-counter mouthwash in fighting bad breath.
Reducing plaque and gingivitis
Gingivitis is caused by inflammation of the gums.
It generally occurs when your immune system starts attacking the bacteria present in dental plaques.
One study showed that oil pulling is as effective as a common ingredient in over-the-counter mouthwash in helping with plaque-induced gingivitis.
While lots of people claim that oil pulling whitens teeth, there isn’t any published research on this. It’s only anecdotal.
With that said, it might be worth an initial try if you’re looking for whiter teeth.
Bleaching is more likely to damage tooth nerves and gums.
Preventing heart disease, diabetes & Alzheimer’s
Poor oral health has been linked to other chronic health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.
Interestingly, dentists will often spot Type 2 diabetes in their patients before the patients’ doctors do.
However, there are no data to suggest oil pulling will help with any of these conditions.
One dentist in Toronto did an informal experiment with 12 of her patients and found that oil pulling had some benefits for those who have Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition that damages salivary glands and causes dry mouth.
Imagine what a turtleneck looks like. Now, think of your gums as turtlenecks for your teeth. This “turtleneck” gum line provides a barrier to microorganisms.
If decay and plaque accumulate along the “turtleneck” gum line, microorganisms dig deeper, causing gums can recede away from teeth.
Gum recession means the “turtleneck” gum line is gone, and bacteria can get to a part of the tooth with no protective enamel. Those who have braces might also experience gum recession.
There is no data yet on how oil pulling influences receding gums.
Ellie Phillips, DDS, often speaks favorably about oil pulling. However, she does caution against oil pulling for those with gum recession or sensitivity, as it may damage biofilm and pellicle proteins, which are critical for a healthy mouth.
Thus, if you’re using oil pulling for receding gums, do it only occasionally.
Pulling & eliminating toxins from the blood / body
Some propose that oil pulling will “pull impurities” from the mouth and blood.
While it does seem to have a mild surfactant effect, oral mucosa don’t seem to allow this kind of exit from the bloodstream into the mouth.
So any oil in your mouth won’t come into contact with blood, nor will it “extract” anything from it.
Are there any dangers?
Oil pulling is pretty safe in general.
But here are a couple of small cautions:
You’re supposed to swish the stuff in your mouth for 10 minutes or more. Because of this, there’s a very small risk of accidentally inhaling the oil and getting lipid pneumonia (i.e. crud in your lungs that leads to fluid buildup and potential infection).
You’re probably going to spit the stuff down your pipes. Consider an expensive plumbing bill from congealed oil before you hork that oil into the sink.
Try expectorating into the garbage instead, or spitting into a cup with some water and dish soap to emulsify the oil before you dump it down the drain.
Putting our oil where our mouth is
As usual, we couldn’t let anecdotal evidence stand without trying it ourselves.
Cue Dr. Berardi.
Dr Berardi’s oil pulling experiment
Last year, a close family member was dealing with a pretty nasty oral surgery. In helping research the procedure, I learned a lot about oral health.
Considering that my family (i.e. parents, grandparents, etc.) have a pretty bad dental health track record, I decided to fine-tune my own oral health routine.
My goals were to:
- better clean my teeth and mouth regularly;
- reduce gumline stress from harsh brushing and chemicals;
- cut down potentially harmful ingredients in my oral care products; and
- improve my overall thoroughness in caring for my mouth.
And, of course, to remain kissably fresh at all times.
I did my research, consulted with some excellent dentists, and formed a plan.
Fundamentals first… I started with a Sonicare toothbrush, started using a toothpaste that scored well according to the EWG Skin Deep database, and started flossing twice per day. Consistently.
Next, I replaced my alcohol-based mouthwash with olive oil.
Nowadays, here’s my morning routine, which includes oil pulling.
- Wake up and immediately brush and floss.
- In goes the olive oil.
- I swish for about 10 minutes while I do my other bathroom business, get dressed, make my bed, etc.
- Running warm water down the sink, I spit out the oil.
- Then I rinse with warm water and get on with my day, oiled and ready for action.
While I haven’t noticed sweeping changes to my overall health, I do think my breath is generally better. But I’m doing other things too (i.e. flossing more, using different toothpaste, etc). So I can’t chalk that up to the oil pulling.
In the end, I wasn’t expecting to see sweeping changes. Rather, I was looking to improve my mouth care routine in total. And remove a bunch of added / unnecessary chemicals from my morning routine.
So, mission accomplished!
What to do
Regardless of whether you try oil pulling, consider reviewing your own oral hygiene practices. Remember…
Eat to support dental health. Here are some guidelines.
Brush at least twice a day with a good toothbrush. Spend enough time on this. Don’t just swipe and go. Carefully scrub your teeth. Use this as a moment of mindfulness.
Use a toothpaste with simple ingredients and as few chemical additives as possible. For more on specific brands, see here.
Floss at least once, preferably twice, per day.
Guidelines for oil pulling
Now, if you’re looking to add something else, you could try oil pulling and see if it makes a difference.
Consider doing a before-and-after test with your dentist. Get your teeth checked and have your dentist make some careful notes on your overall oral health before you start oil pulling. (Oh yeah, you might want to actually go see your dentist. S/he probably misses you.) Then, experiment. Schedule a follow-up with your dentist a few months later to see whether s/he can spot any differences.
Make sure oil pulling is appropriate for you. If you have sensitive teeth or gum recession, it might be better for you to oil pull only occasionally rather than daily. Again, check with your dentist to learn more about the specifics of your oral health.
Experiment with oil type. Coconut oil in particular may have anti-microbial properties.
Try adding other essential oils to the mix. Many essential oils — such as oil of peppermint, thyme, lavender, tea tree, oregano, or basil — are either microbicidal (i.e. they kill pathogens) or bacteriostatic (i.e. they stop bacteria from “sticking” or colonizing) and have been tested as effective in oral care regimens.
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