Oil pulling is an Ayurvedic alternative treatment that has been generating a lot of buzz on the Internet of late. Simply type in the Google search for “oil pulling” and you will get millions of results, many of which are recent postings. The alternative names for this traditional Indian technique are “kavala” and “gundusha”.

This ancient practice of swishing oil in one's mouth for about 15-20 minutes daily is said to have dental as well as overall health benefits. Some of the main benefits discussed are that it removes toxins, cures sinuses, eases jaw pains, removes plaque and helps with bad breath. To a lesser extent, it has been credited with curing hangovers, hormonal imbalances, eczema, acne, sleeping disorders and even diabetes.

Given the endless blogs and articles dedicated to this emerging topic, the question on everyone's lips is whether it works and how far the benefit claims are supported by solid scientific evidence. Obviously, you can’t have such bold claims being bandied around without them getting picked up by the health and wellness community at large – which prides itself on having answers to just about any natural remedy that you can possibly think of – or for that matter, the relevant health authorities, which is tasked with the more scientific, albeit rigid, fact-finding approach.

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at the oil pulling practice, studying its many oral health claims as well as those from a nutritional and naturalistic standpoint. For the most part, we will focus our attention on whether the traditional Indian remedy helps with teeth whitening, which is perhaps the main reason for its growing traction. Here is a quick rundown of this article:

It is worth noting from the onset that despite the mountain of literature on the topic, many of the sites rely on information that falls outside the professional domains of dentistry or medicine, hence scientific evidence-based information about its actual oral care benefits remain limited.

Since the lack of good medical studies has not reduced any interest in the oil-pulling phenomenon, we would like to supplement this subject of growing interest with responsible caveats such as the things that dental patients need to be aware of, and if any, possible risks or side effects. As healthcare providers, our job is to point the patient community in the right direction, whether it is the popular thing to do or not.

With that in mind, this article endeavors to do something that eludes many of the aforementioned articles: offer a balanced take on the topic, giving due acknowledgement to the claims of its proponents as well as those that remain skeptical about its wide-ranging benefits.

On this note, we shall begin with some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Oil Pulling before delving into the benefits and reasons – both for and against the practice.

oil pulling remedies

Frequently Asked Questions about Oil Pulling

What is oil pulling?

Oil pulling (or oil swishing) is a traditional natural remedy recorded in the Ayurvedic text. Native to India, the Ayurvedic system of medicine combines yogic breathing, diet and herbal treatment to promote health and wellbeing. Literature contained in the Charaka Samhita also describes the alternative therapy as being able to treat systemic oral problems including tooth decay, gum disease and bad breath. Charaka Samhita is a popular medical science series, from which the oil pulling Ayurvedic text is derived.

What does oil pulling involve?

Oil pulling is a natural therapy that involves very simple steps:

  • Step 1: Take about 1 tablespoon of the oil of your choice and hold it in your mouth. You must do this on an empty stomach as the toxins may cause nausea if your stomach is full.
  • Step 2: Gently rinse your mouth by swishing oil around for about 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Step 3: Spit out the oil, rinsing with warm water, salt solution or mouthwash.
  • Step 4: Brush your teeth, preferably with natural therapeutic toothpaste. You may wish to use a different toothbrush for your oil pulling sessions, as it may accumulate toxins and bacteria. To be safe, always run this toothbrush under the hot water tap for about 10 seconds immediately after use, and let it air dry before using it again the following day.

You are not to swallow the oil because it has become toxic. The swishing action has drawn poisonous toxins from the blood through the mucous membranes in the mouth. At this point, the oil should appear thicker and foamy. You may do oil pulling between 1 to 3 times a day. The best time to do oil pulling is in the morning before breakfast.

What type of oil can I use?

You may use any type of oil for oil pulling although there are different theories as to which type of oil work better. As far as effective results go, the popular consensus appears to favour the use of coconut oil. Other recommended options are: sunflower, sesame and olive.

The freedom to choose the type of oil is important as some people may find certain taste or smell repulsive, and this would have a direct impact on how long they can put up with the daily swishing regime.

How does oil pulling work?

It is said that the swishing motion of the oil, mixed with your saliva, helps to activate the enzymes in your mouth, thereby “pulling” out the toxins of the blood. We accumulate these toxins from the foods we consume, cosmetic products we use and even the polluted air we breathe. Studies show that the lipids in the oil trap the bacteria and toxins that have been released by the mouth, before they reach the rest of the body. This method of drawing out harmful toxins and bacteria from the body has the purported effect of protecting the person from getting sick, along with other therapeutic benefits.

Although there are reports justifying the benefits of oil pulling, it must be acknowledged that a lack of scientific evidence is available to back these claims.

how does oil pulling work?

Does oil pulling really help to clean – and whiten – your teeth?

Oil pulling has been trending in the health and wellness community as an alternative therapy mostly due to its teeth whitening benefits. Hollywood actors like Gwyneth Paltrow and Shailene Woodley have been gushing about oil pulling as an all-natural method to achieve sparkling white teeth.

Woodley, who plays the female lead in the movie Divergent, uses sesame oil for her swishing. Convinced that the Ayurvedic technique works, she shared enthusiastically: "It's amazing. It really makes your teeth whiter, because the plaque on your teeth is not water soluble, it’s fat-soluble. So the lipids have to dissolve in fats, which is why oil works in your mouth. I prefer sesame oil, but they’re both good."

Another famous oil puller, Paltrow also shared on the therapeutic properties of edible oil: "I use coconut oil a lot. I do on my face, on my skin and in my cooking. And I just started oil pulling, which is when you swish coconut oil around [in your mouth] for 20 minutes, and it's supposed to be great for oral health and making your teeth white. It's supposed to clear up your skin, as well."

Indeed, many who have experimented with this centuries-old practice believe the simple oil gargling technique not only cleanses their mouth but also brightens their teeth. Although some have reported noticeable results, the oil-swishing whitening method is far from being verifiable. Most of the claims are anecdotal or poorly researched, lacking proper scientific investigation.

No compelling reason to try it, although it's probably not harmful.

Unlike the people who existed before the time of modern dentistry, today's patients have access to many effective methods of teeth cleaning and whitening that enjoy credible scientific evidence. Many dental professionals claim there is no compelling reason to try oil pulling – a technique that predates modern dentistry by thousands of years – if the main goal is simply to achieve whiter and cleaner teeth.

Says Dr Mark V Psillakis, Executive Clinical Consultant, Dental Corporation Pty Ltd:

"“The principle of oil pulling to whiten teeth is based on the idea that certain oils can dissolve discoloured plaques/extrinsic stains off teeth but this is better achieved by a simple scale and clean by your dental professional."

"There is a distinct lack of scientific evidence to sufficiently support many of the claims made by proponents of the practice. Studies currently available have clear limitations making them unreliable: misinterpretation of results due to small sample size, insufficient negative controls and demographic data and lack of blinding."

Dr Derek Lewis, Australian Dental Association (ADA) Oral Health Committee member, is also sceptical about the purported benefits.

"Some of the claims on oil pulling are really quite extraordinary," Lewis said, according to news.com.au in the feature "Oil Pulling: The new health trend for wellness warriors". "You have to be suspicious when something offers that broad spectrum of benefits."

Although the dentist with over 30 years of experience saw no potential damage with the practice, he did qualify that the lack of evidence made it difficult to give a definitive response. He pointed out that it was not known whether the regularity and frequency of rinsing might change the bacteria load or the flora in the mouth "for better or worse".

Lack of evidence, he said, precluded oil pulling from being recommended as an appropriate part of oral hygienic measures. As for its cleaning benefits, Lewis concurred what many dentists have said about oil pulling, that it shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for regular brushing and flossing.

Interviewed by CTV News for the article "Oil pulling: The secret to whiter teeth or snake oil", Dr Peter Doig, President of the Canadian Dental Association, was asked for his views on oil pulling being used as a teeth-whitening method. Dr Doig said that while there was probably nothing harmful about the age-old technique, it was unlikely to be helpful. The best way to whiten teeth, he says, is to remove stains and tartar through regular brushing and flossing, coupled with professional dental cleans.

Countering claims that teeth look more radiant after oil pulling, Doig said that it is possibly due to the reflective coat of oil, which does not last for very long.

Dr Doig also refuted a prevalent theory about the use of oil pulling to remove fat-soluble plaque. Drawing on scientific evidence that shows plaque as a highly complex biofilm – comprising a matrix of components that can resist external influences – he stressed that plaque is more than just simple fat. Dr Doig concluded: "...I can tell you with absolute confidence that oil is not going to be effective in dissolving plaque."

As for the detoxifying attributes, Dr Doig is sceptical of claims that oil pulling can trap the bacteria and toxins released in the mouth, or draw them out from our bodies.

Echoing Dr Lewis' "too-good-to-be-true" suspicions, Dr Doig said: "Whenever you see quasi-health claims that mention 'toxins', your suspicion level should go up immediately. There's never any discussion about what these toxins are or how they are supposed to be removed."

He also reminded us that the liver and kidneys in our bodies have already assumed the role of removing waste and toxins from our bodies, adding: "And they do a very good job of it."

effects of oil pulling

Health/ dental benefits of oil pulling – and available evidence

Although oil pulling has been used for many years, it is largely regarded as a traditional Indian folk remedy without any scientific evidence or proof. However, its dental and health benefits have been widely attributed.

It is one of those techniques which immense popularity amongst the lay population has prompted the interest – not to mention, scrutiny – of the scientific community. That said, there has only been a handful of research carried out to prove or disprove the veracity of claims surrounding this Ayurvedic alternative medicine. Let’s first look at some of the broad-ranging benefit claims.

Oil pulling has been credited with the prevention of many dental ailments such as tooth decay, bleeding gums, dry mouth, gum diseases, bad breath, throat dryness and cracked lips. Further, it is said to strengthen one’s teeth, gums and jaws – even offering holistic treatment for TMJ and general soreness in the jaw area.

Other perhaps more outlandish claims tout it as a form of 'medical miracle'. Proponents of this belief say that oil pulling treats allergies, insomnia, thrombosis, asthma, chronic pain, heart problems, digestive issues, kidney problems, post-menstrual syndrome (PMS), energy depletion, diabetes, leukaemia and even AIDS.

Are there available scientific evidence for these claims?

So exactly how many of these claims have received endorsements from the scientific community. Not many at all. Suffice to say, one would be hard pressed to quote evidence-based studies to conclusively support any of them. Let’s look at the handful of examples.

One study showed that oil pulling with sesame oil has the effect of reducing Streptococcus mutans – a microbe that contributes to tooth decay – thereby improving the patient’s overall oral health.

Another research, a randomised controlled pilot trial, found that oil pulling can relieve bad breath. The same research claims that the swishing action produces a soap-like effect in the mouth known as a saponification process, thereby pointing to its cleansing attributes, which also assist in reducing the presence of plaque in the mouth.

Another finding links the lipids in the oil to its supposed bacteria-diminishing effects. According to this research, the lipids are said to reduce the adhesion of the bacteria to the gums and teeth. Another scientific source claims that 40 days of oil pulling using sesame oil had resulted in a 20% drop in oral bacteria.

Despite these findings, professional dental bodies remain unconvinced. According to the American Dental Association, there has been insufficient research resulting in scarce reliable scientific evidence to support the efficacy of oil pulling. For the record, ADA recommends the use of an antiseptic mouthwash to accomplish the purported cleansing benefits of oil pulling, in addition to regular brushing and flossing. The Canadian Dental Association was also skeptical, giving the usual non-committal response: "We sense oil pulling won't do any harm (but) we're not convinced there are any particular benefits to it."

Supporting these views, an in vitro study conducted in 2013 found that oil pulling has no effect on microbial colonisation of the enamel. Their conclusion: Oil pulling with olive oil, linseed oil or safflower oil could not be recommended for biofilm reduction.

It is generally agreed that oil pulling has no documented ill effects. That said, a few problems have been raised although they are not very common. There was an isolated case of accidental inhalation of the oil during oil pulling that had caused lipid pneumonia. In rare cases, coconut oil has been known to trigger antigenic reactions resulting in an itchy rash (contact dermatitis). There are also reports of diarrhea and stomach upsets from oil pulling although these are also not common.

Most importantly, oil pulling should not replace the professional care of a dentist. The real negative consequence of oil pulling lies in the user’s misplaced trust and confidence. When patients believe it to be more effective than seeing a dentist or maintaining their at-home cleaning habits like brushing and flossing, the therapy may result in dental problems arising from delayed treatments or poor oral hygiene.

oil pulling teeth whitening

Natural Teeth Whitening vs Dentist-Administered Teeth Whitening

We’ve all read about natural teeth whitening remedies that can help to remove stains and whiten our teeth. Oil pulling is just one of many DIY methods that you can choose to do at any time in the comfort of your home. However, the important question to ask is whether they even work at all– and by "work" we do mean that the whitening effect is visible and consistent for all your teeth. Also, are there any side effects that you need to be aware of? Let’s find out.

One of the most popular home whitening treatments is that of combining baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. Others have tried applying on their teeth a mixture of lemon juice and baking soda. Then you also have the lesser-known concoctions like baking-soda-and-strawberries, hardwood ash, and finally vinegar-and-sea-salt.

Before you attempt any of the aforementioned home therapies, you will need to be aware of the potential risks and side effects involved.

First, the possible hurdles: Some users experience burns when applying hydrogen peroxide that is not sufficiently diluted with water. The acidic content in citrus fruits like lemons and strawberries can damage the tooth enamel over time, so these therapies are to be used with extreme caution. While hardwood ash is reportedly effective as a whitening agent due to its potassium hydroxide (lye) ingredient, the active lye agent is also very harsh and can harm your teeth enamel over time.

Dr Mark V Psillakis, Executive Clinical Consultant, Dental Corporation Pty Ltd:

"Natural teeth whitening includes things such as brushing with charcoal, and using homemade toothpastes containing calcium carbonate. Although these may have a lightening effect on teeth, they are not more effective than the tried and tested professional whitening systems and could be potentially damaging as a result of the abrasiveness of some products."

For all the trouble and risks that you undertake to experiment with home remedies, the results may not be what you’re looking for. To ensure successful teeth whitening, the safe and thorough application of the whitening agent is of paramount importance. Even if you do get the whitening recipe right – a big "if" – you would need to make sure that only the teeth are affected by the active ingredients. This is why the professional, dentist-administered teeth whitening option is generally preferred.

Dr Psillakis adds: "Achieving a satisfactory result with whitening products goes beyond simply the presence of an active ingredient. The formulation of the product needs to be such that it allows the active ingredient to be in intimate contact with the tooth surface. So application via a professionally-constructed custom tray becomes important for best results."

Further, dentists would not recommend a treatment unless it was considered safe and effective. During a professional teeth-whitening treatment, the dentist uses protective goggles, gels and mouthguards to ensure that the active whitening ingredients do not come into contact with the soft tissues in your mouth. With the use of a customised tray that conforms precisely to your teeth, the dentist is able to achieve optimum results due to the even application of the whitening agent. Finally, for many chairside applications, the dentist uses a special laser beam or activating light source that catalyses the active ingredient for fast and effective whitening results. As an indication, an hour-long whitening session at the dentist’s office can achieve lightening results that may take OTC products and home whitening kits many weeks and months.

Those interested in teeth whitening may look out for dentists that belong to the Dental Care Network (DCN). DCN has an extensive network of practices offering high quality dental services across Australia and New Zealand. Speak to your DCN dentist who can customise a course of treatment that is best suited for you.

For more information, please contact our team at Dental Care Network.