~swish swish~

Kaitlyn McLintock
August 11, 2020
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Keeping up with the surge of “cure-all” wellness fads is a job in and of itself. In our column Wellness Inspector, we do the work for you, closely examining these trends to see if they’re worth your hard-earned pennies—or whether they’re just hype.

Who remembers when everyone was talking about oil pulling a few years ago? The Internet was inundated with articles, social media posts, and informal celebrity endorsements that brought this ancient Ayurvedic practice to the modern health and wellness market. The practice, which involves swishing oil around one’s mouth for an extended period, is said to promote better oral health and even detoxify the body, but does the science hold up? Keep reading to find out. 

What is oil pulling? 

If you missed the recent oil pulling renaissance, or you simply need a refresh, Azra Hajdarevic, co-founder of the clean and sustainable oral care brand Terra & Co., is here to explain it all. The first thing to know is that oil pulling originates in Ayurveda, which is a traditional system of medicine that came from India thousands of years ago. “Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic tradition that is formed around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago,” Hajdarevic says.

The practice is very simple. Every morning upon waking up, you swish oil in your mouth for an extended time before spitting it out and brushing your teeth as normal. Proponents of the practice claim that it can improve dental health, whiten teeth, and even draw out toxins from the body. According to the experts, some of these claims can be backed up by science, but others can’t. 

What are the benefits of oil pulling? 

According to Dr. Matt Nejad, cosmetic and biomimetic dentist in Beverly Hills, oil pulling has shown promise in promoting better overall oral health. “Oil pulling has shown evidence to be antibacterial and effective against cavity-causing bacteria with a reduction in susceptibility for cavities,” he says. “Other studies have reported oil pulling to be effective in reducing plaque accumulation, reducing gingivitis, and combating bad breath.” 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the other purported benefits of oil pulling don’t have the same scientific evidence. Take its supposed whitening effects, for instance. “There is no documented whitening from oil pulling. It is not able to change the color of your teeth, but it has been proposed to make teeth seem brighter because of the oily coating and a shiny appearance. It has also been reported to minimize stain accumulation due to the oil coating on the teeth but these have not been proven and oil pulling users have reported contradicting results," says Dr. Nejad.

He also isn’t convinced that oil pulling can truly detoxify the body. “There is no science behind this,” he says. “It is one of several theories on the mechanism of action. It is not known exactly how oil pulling works.” 

What type of oil should be used? 

“Traditionally, in Ayurveda, the oils used are sesame, coconut, and sunflower oils,” Hajdarevic explains. “Seasame is the most popular in India, partly due to its penetrating effects and its ability to help carry other ingredients to the cells. In the Western world, we see the popularity of coconut oil-based oil pulling. It makes it more pleasant to pull due to its flavor.” Hajdarevic recommends pouring one teaspoon of oil into your mouth first thing in the morning. “It’s best to do while doing any morning chores, like making coffee or feeding your pet,” she says. “Gently swish and swirl for five-10 minutes daily.” Once the time is up, spit the oil out into the trash can (don’t spit it down the sink in case it collects in the drain pipe and causes a blockage). 

Dr. Nejad, on the other hand, says the oil should be swished between the teeth for approximately 15-20 minutes and then spat out—whatever you do, never swallow it. “Swallowing the oil should be avoided as it may have toxins and bacteria, which are harmful to general health,” Dr. Nejad warns. “This should be followed by rinsing, conventional tooth brushing, and flossing.” 

Are there any downsides to oil pulling? 

Dr. Nejad and Hajdarevic say there aren’t any clear or pressing health risks from oil pulling when done correctly and used in conjunction with regular brushing and flossing. The downside, according to Dr. Nejad, is the time-consuming nature of the practice. “It takes a lot of time and if the same time is spent with good brushing technique and flossing, then there shouldn't be a need for oil pulling. Both cavities and periodontal disease are preventable, but most patients fail to adequately put in the time and effort, and oil pulling is far from a magic bullet," he explains.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether or not you practice an oil pulling ritual. If you don’t mind devoting a few minutes each morning to swishing oil around your mouth, then your oral health could benefit, but only if you’re doing it for the recommended amount of time and brushing afterward. After all, it’s just like Dr. Nejad said, oil pulling shouldn’t replace your toothbrush and floss.