Everything You Need to Know About Oil Pulling

Oil pulling involves swishing edible oil in your mouth and then spitting it out to help improve teeth and gum health. The practice originates from ancient Ayurveda, traditional medicine from India, and typically involves using coconut oil, sesame oil, or sunflower oil. 

Supporters of oil pulling claim the practice can "pull" harmful bacteria from your mouth for a healthier smile. However, there's limited evidence to prove oil pulling can improve oral health. Still ready to give oil pulling a try? Here's how oil pulling works and how it might benefit your health.  

Pouring coconut oil on a spoon

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What Does Oil Pulling Actually Do? 

Studies have shown oil pulling can help reduce the bacteria in saliva that cause plaque, gingivitis, and bad breath. However, how exactly that translates to improving your teeth and gum health is debatable. Many oil pulling studies include small sample sizes over short periods of time and are poorly designed. There is also no evidence to support claims that oil pulling can whiten teeth, treat asthma, alleviate allergies, or prevent heart disease. 

More high-quality studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of oil pulling. However, even though oil pulling may seem a little woo-woo compared to a stellar brushing and flossing routine, it may benefit your oral health in a few ways. 

It May Eliminate Harmful Bacteria

The main claim of oil pulling is that it pulls, or eliminates, bacteria from your mouth. In reality, you will always have some bacteria in your mouth, but oil pulling may help decrease harmful bacteria. Hundreds of different beneficial and harmful types of bacteria naturally thrive in your mouth. When harmful bacteria multiply because you're not brushing well or eat lots of sugar, you often encounter tooth decay, gum disease, and bad breath.

 In a 2019 study of 75 children, those who rinsed with an antibacterial mouthwash or oil pulled with sesame oil reduced significant amounts of harmful bacteria in their saliva. Another 2016 study of 60 participants compared people who rinsed with chlorhexidine mouthwash for one minute, oil pulled with coconut oil for 10 minutes, and rinsed with distilled water for one minute before brushing their teeth. After two weeks, researchers found the mouthwash and coconut oil groups had fewer bacteria in their saliva. 

It May Reduce Bad Breath

Bad breath is often caused by bacteria that coat the tongue, infections, and lack of oral hygiene. Because bacteria hanging out in your mouth can lead to bad breath, known medically as halitosis, oil pulling may help you prevent and reduce bad breath. 

People with bad breath often treat the stink by improving their brushing habits or rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash, like chlorhexidine. However, a 15-day study of 30 pregnant people found oil pulling with rice bran oil or sesame oil was just as effective at reducing bad breath as chlorhexidine mouthwash. In addition, a 2011 study of 20 kids found oil pulling with sesame oil or rinsing with chlorhexidine helped reduce bacteria that cause bad breath. 

It May Prevent Tooth Decay

Research has shown oil pulling with coconut oil can help reduce harmful bacteria in the mouth that are often responsible for tooth decay. So oil pulling may help decrease your risk of developing cavities since bacteria buildup starts to decay your teeth.

Oil pulling may also help prevent plaque buildup that jumpstarts tooth decay. A small 2020 study found oil pulling with coconut oil helped reduce plaque formation after 30 days. Another 4-day plaque regrowth study found similar plaque-reducing results for oil pulling with coconut and sesame oil.  

It May Reduce Gum Inflammation

Bacteria that hang around in plaque can also lead to gingivitis --- a gum disease where your gums become irritated and bleed. Oil pulling may help reduce inflammation associated with gum disease by decreasing bacteria that can lead to gum disease. 

Coconut oil, specifically, also has anti-inflammatory properties that may help soothe inflamed gums. A study of 60 people with gingivitis found oil pulling with coconut oil helped reduce plaque and improve gum health after one week. An old study of 20 male children with gingivitis found oil pulling with sesame oil or regular mouthwash improved symptoms. Oil pulling also helped reduce plaque and harmful bacteria in their mouths.

Risks of Oil Pulling

Oil pulling shouldn't replace brushing your teeth and regular dental visits. However, adding oil pulling to your oral hygiene routine is usually low-risk. 

More studie are needed to know the true risks and side effects of oil pulling. But when done correctly, oil pulling is likely low risk for adults. Still, research has found oil pulling can cause mild to potentially dangerous side effects like: 

  • Upset stomach from accidentally swallowing the oil
  • Oil aspiration (accidentally inhaling oil into the lungs)
  • Lipoid pneumonia from getting oil stuck in the lungs over time

Oil pulling may also be dangerous if you have an allergy to sesame or coconut. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently added sesame as one of the nine major food allergens. An allergy to coconut is rare, but it is also possible. If you oil pull and have symptoms of an allergic reaction — like swelling, hives, or itching — call your healthcare provider. If you have trouble breathing or your throat starts to swell, call 911 immediately. These are signs of a severe allergic reaction (aka anaphylaxis) that needs medical attention ASAP. If you have a known allergy to coconut or sesame, you should avoid using these oils for oil pulling.

How Often Should You Oil Pull? 

The American Dental Association also doesn't support oil pulling due to its lack of concrete evidence. However, if you decide that you’d like to try it, the practice is relatively low-risk, as long as you don’t have any allergies to the oil you’re using.

Oil pulling can be done daily, preferably in the morning before you brush your teeth. Oil-pulling practitioners also recommend you oil pull on an empty stomach and aim to swish the oil around for 20 minutes. If 20 minutes is too uncomfortable, you can try 5 to 10 minutes instead. 

How to Oil Pull

Sesame and coconut oil are the most studied oils used in oil pulling and appear to be the most effective. Both of these oils have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which may help decrease and prevent harmful bacteria overgrowth in your mouth. However, coconut oil is often considered the best oil for oil pulling because it has a milder taste.

Oil pulling is easy to do in the morning and should be done before you brush your teeth. To start oil pulling, follow these steps: 

  1. Spoon a tablespoon of oil into your mouth
  2. Swish the oil in your mouth for 10-20 minutes (make sure to move the oil around your teeth)  
  3. Spit out the oil (it should look milky and thin)
  4. Rinse your mouth out with water and brush your teeth 

Oil can clog your pipes over time, so it's best to avoid spitting oil directly into your sink. Opt for spitting the oil into a paper towel, disposable cup, or trash can. 

A Quick Review

Oil pulling involves swishing oil in your mouth to improve teeth and gum health. However, research on oil pulling is limited, and there aren't enough high-quality studies to prove oil pulling is an effective way to improve oral health. 

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22 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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