We all want fresh breath and white teeth. And so we should. Not only are they signs of excellent health, but they also make us a lot more “kissable” — or so says the oral care industry, a multibillion-dollar business.
But next time you’re swishing with that fancy mouthwash or scrubbing your teeth with the latest whitening product, you might want to think about what you’re putting in your mouth — chemicals with crazy-sounding names like triclosan and carbomer. These chemicals don’t just sound scary: They can actually pose risks to your overall health.
Meanwhile, they may not even work as promised. Take mouthwash: It’s supposed to kill bacteria and freshen breath. Yet alcohol-based mouthwash can actually dry out your mouth and disarm your oral mucous defense team.
That’s where oil pulling comes in. This ancient Ayurvedic technique promises to improve bad breath and oral health without the risks of modern chemicals.
Before we look at whether current research supports those promises, here’s how you do it.
Oil Pulling Primer
Do it 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.
Hold it in your mouth without swallowing.
Swish it around for 10 to 15 minutes while doing your other bathroom business like washing your face, applying lotion or makeup, getting dressed, etc.
At the end of the 10 to 15 minutes, spit it out.
Rinse your mouth with warm water.
Floss, brush and get on with your day.
That’s all there is to it.
Does Oil Pulling Work?
Oil pulling may have a long history and it may be easy to do, but if it doesn’t work, it’s not worth doing. So, does it? Here’s what I discovered: Most studies looking at oil pulling are small, short or incomplete. So at this point, we shouldn’t depend on them.
But that doesn’t mean that the practice is useless. While the studies may be incomplete, some of them look promising. In particular, oil pulling may help in five key areas:
Reducing gum disease
Reducing dry mouth
Killing bad breath
Helping whiten teeth
Encouraging you to maintain better overall oral care
But let’s take a closer look:
Reducing Plaque and Gum Disease
Gum disease, or gingivitis, is caused by inflammation of the gums. Healthy gums aren’t just cosmetically important. If your gums are diseased, you can lose your teeth.
What’s more, people with gum disease have a harder time controlling their blood sugars and are at greater risk for developing heart disease. Gingivitis generally occurs when your immune system starts attacking the bacteria present in dental plaques.
Some people naturally produce so much plaque that even with good oral hygiene it tends to build up. Many dentists prescribe a mouthwash for that problem.
By now, you know that mouthwash comes with its own risks. Oil pulling just might offer an answer. One study showed that oil pulling is as effective as a common ingredient in over-the-counter mouthwash in helping fight plaque-induced gingivitis.
Getting Rid of Bad Breath
About 85 percent of bad breath (or halitosis) comes from the mouth. Factors that can make halitosis worse include gum disease, tooth disease, and tongue coating. Chronic diseases like diabetes, GI disease, and liver disease can also contribute to the problem.
Meanwhile, studies indicate that oil pulling is as effective as a common ingredient in over-the-counter mouthwash in fighting bad breath — one more good reason to try it.
Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune condition that damages salivary glands and causes dry mouth. It’s especially common in older people. One dentist in Toronto did an informal experiment with 12 of her patients. She found that oil pulling helped improve this condition.
Since dry mouth can make it difficult to speak and swallow and can lead to a host of other medical problems, this study, while small, is important, especially considering our aging population.
Oil Pulling May Whiten Teeth
Face it: Many of us care more about whiter teeth than healthier gums (at least until our gums are truly diseased). While many 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.
Better Overall Oral Care
Even if oil pulling has no direct whitening effects, over the long run it still might lead to whiter teeth as well as better oral health in general.
Why? Because it’s a commitment. And like any commitment, it will make you more mindful of your other practices — in this case, the ones to do with your dental care. Practices like:
Brushing properly twice a day with low-chemical toothpaste
Eating for oral health
Flossing at least once a day
Following these habits consistently will help you maintain shiny white teeth and healthy gums. Oil pulling can become a part of that routine.
See a Dentist Before You Start
If you’re intrigued by these findings and would like to learn more, take a look at this in-depth article. In it I describe my own personal experiment with oil pulling. And if you’re already convinced and would like to give oil pulling a try, here’s what I recommend:
Ensure you’re following the basics of good oral health.
Check with your dentist to see if oil pulling could be a good fit for you.
Experiment with the type of oils that you use. Many essential oils — such as oil of peppermint, thyme, lavender, tea tree, oregano, and basil — can be helpful in controlling bacteria and pathogens.
Sure, oil pulling sounds a little strange. And it might feel a little strange the first few times you try it. But if you want to improve the health of your teeth and gums without dangerous chemicals, you’ve got five good reasons to at least try it.