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Oil pulling: is it worth the morning swish effort?

Oil pulling has become a natural oral health remedy sensation in recent years. We’re being asked about it in the clinic more and more. We’ve searched the scientific literature to see what evidence exists to support the health claims of this ancient Ayurvedic practice.

What is oil pulling?

Oil pulling is a mouth washing and gargling technique that involves swishing and pulling a tablespoon of oil around your mouth and through your teeth for up to 15 minutes at a time. It’s best done first thing in the morning after waking, before eating, according to folklore. Coconut, sesame and olive oils are most commonly used. Essential oils such as mint, cinnamon and cloves are sometimes added for flavour and extra health benefits, more commonly found in commercial preparations. Once you’ve finished swishing, the oil is spat out rather than swallowed.

Why oil pull?

Oil pulling is supposed to clean the mouth by reducing plaque levels, freshen the breath by balancing the mouth microbiome and detoxify gums and mouth mucosa to prevent oral disease.

Is oil pulling safe?

  • Oil is ok to swallow in small amounts, but larger amounts may cause stomach discomfort
  • Oil can be accidentally inhaled into the lungs when trying to breathe and oil pull at the same time. There are reported cases of this causing serious pneumonia
  • Oil and especially coconut oil can block drains causing plumbing problems, so it’s better to spit pulled oil into the toilet than the sink

Which oil is best to pull?

Sesame oil is traditionally used for oil pulling as it’s supposed to draw inflammation from the body when topically applied. It is a polyunsaturated (PUFA) oil that has relatively significant levels of calcium and vitamin K1, helpful in teeth and bone mineralisation and blood clotting. Along with olive oil, sesame oil is higher in omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, that have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body. Perhaps the topical application of an omega-6 rich oil to mouth mucosa is key to its effect, there is some emerging research into wound healing to support this concept.

Coconut oil is a saturated fat and contains medium-chain-fatty-acids (MCFAs). For this reason, it may have stronger antimicrobial activity, including against Lactobacilli species, than sesame or olive oil.

How does oil pulling work?

Swishing oil can have a detergent-like effect on gums and teeth, attracting the lipophilic or ‘fat-liking’ molecules from dental plaque. These molecules then create an oil emulsion that is eventually spat out.

A few small studies have found conflicting results regarding the effectiveness of oil pulling at removing plaque better than a placebo such as water. No improvement was found to gingivitis over a 30 day period. Another study found results comparable to chlorhexidine mouth rinse for microbial management, while another was suggestive of improved breath aroma and helpful with dry mouth.

Does oil pulling have a use for facial muscle toning?

Orofacial myology is a growing therapy area where exercises are used to improve the tone of oral and facial muscles. Gargling and mouth swishing are used to improve cheek, throat and lip muscle strength. These exercises may be of benefit in minimising the signs of aging, and helpful for people who are having problems with swallowing (dysphagia) or have a strong gag reflex, however evidence is only suggestive currently.

What oil pulling can’t do

  • Oil pulling cannot cure a toothache. You need to see a dentist
  • Oil pulling cannot heal a cavity. You need to see a dentist
  • Oil pulling cannot tighten loose teeth. You need to see a dentist
  • Oil pulling will not fix a tooth abscess. You need to see a dentist
  • OIl pulling will not remove tartar. You need to see a dentist
  • OIl pulling will not cure oral thrush or Candida. You need to see a dentist or doctor
  • Oil pulling will not help heal a tooth extraction socket, it could actually make it worse or cause a dry socket, especially if undertaken in the first 48 hours post-surgery




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