Does Oil Pulling Actually Work?

Open jar of coconut oil with a halved coconut in the background

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Oil pulling is a 2,000-year-old Ayurvedic treatment that has become a new hot trend, due in no small part to celebrity endorsements by Gwyneth Paltrow and Shailene Woodley. Oil pulling involves swishing a small amount of oil, usually cold-pressed sesame or coconut oils, around one’s mouth for 15-20 minutes daily, with the goal of ‘pulling’ out toxins.

While it was originally prescribed as a method for keeping teeth clean in a pre-toothbrush era, modern advocates of oil pulling now make it sound like a miraculous cure-all, with the ability to cure everything from bleeding gums and tooth infections, to chronic pain, bad skin, and hangovers.

Does it really work, or is this just another health fad?

Putting Oil Pulling to the Test

According to the Toronto Star, Leslie Laing Gibbard, clinical specialist in dentistry at the University of Toronto, decided to do an informal experiment to see if oil pulling has any real results. She prescribed oil pulling to 12 female patients who suffer from Sjogren’s syndrome, an immune system disorder that results in dry eyes and dry cheeks that have to be “peeled off their teeth” when they wake up in the morning. Laing’s patients did oil pulling for 20 minutes every night for three weeks.

The results were surprising to Laing. The patients’ mouths were moister, their teeth glossier. Cavity-causing bacteria were reduced, as was the yeast that causes oral thrush. The Toronto Star reports: “Reducing these yeast levels can have help with bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, headaches, and even depression.” While Laing was impressed and says that oil pulling has “clear antibacterial benefits,” she believes it needs to be studied more closely.

Beneficial but Not Miraculous

Steven Novella, in his skeptical article, “Oil Pulling Your Leg,” says that the benefits of oil pulling are perfectly plausible because the mechanical action of swishing oil around one’s mouth for that long is bound to dislodge bits of food and clean the teeth. The oil can also become emulsified during oil pulling, which enhances the mechanical cleaning. As a result, oil pulling is probably better than doing nothing, but certainly not a replacement for brushing one’s teeth.

When it comes to eliminating toxins and curing diseases, however, Novella thinks that’s a bit of a stretch: “Like all alleged detox treatments, specific toxins are never named or measured, nor is any specific causal link made to the specific diseases that are claimed to be treated.”

I remain skeptical, despite reading glowing online reports and hearing from friends who swear by it. Admittedly, I’ve only tried it once, and was astounded when the small heaping teaspoon of coconut oil mixed with my saliva to turn into a huge mouthful of gag-worthy liquid that tasted faintly like a melted macaroon. Fifteen minutes of swishing seemed an eternity. I agree with Laing that some more research would be helpful before making further statements about the benefits of oil pulling.

Have you tried oil pulling? What do you think of it?

View Article Sources
  1. Shanbhag, Vagish Kumar L. “Oil Pulling for Maintaining Oral Hygiene – A Review.” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, vol. 7, 2017, pp. 106-109., doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2016.05.004

  2. Is Oil-Pulling your Best Choice for Dental Health? Ancient Folk Practice is Seeing a Burst of Interest.” Cleveland Clinic.