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Scroll through TikTok or Instagram, and you might see videos of people swishing oil as if it were mouthwash. While you may think it’s odd, or write it off as the latest social media health craze, they’re actually engaging in an ancient Ayurvedic practice known as oil pulling.
Read on to learn more about what oil pulling is, how it works, and why it may impact your overall wellness.
Oil pulling generally involves placing edible oil in the mouth and swishing it through the teeth for roughly 3 to 20 minutes each morning on an empty stomach, or simply holding the oil in the mouth for the same duration, per a research review. It’s thought that oil pulling may improve oral health and, by extension, offer possible benefits for overall health when practiced daily.
The practice of cleansing the mouth with oil is commonly attributed to Ayurveda, an ancient traditional medical system in India that dates back about 5,000 years, according to a research review. Oil pulling is referred to in Sanskrit as kavala graha or kavala gandoosha (or gandusha) in Ayurvedic texts.
It has been used for centuries as a medicinal technique to prevent tooth decay, bad breath, bleeding gums, dry throat, cracked lips, and to strengthen the teeth, gums, and jaw, per another review.
Additionally, according to ayurvedic texts, it’s believed that oil pulling may help manage and prevent physiological health complaints such as headaches, asthma, and diabetes, per the aforementioned research review.
Many people continue to use oil pulling today for oral hygiene benefits. But because evidence is lacking, oil pulling isn’t currently recommended as a dental hygiene practice by the American Dental Association (ADA).
There are a couple of ways to pull oil (more on this shortly). Generally, though, the practice involves putting a tablespoon (for adults) or a teaspoon (for children 5 years and older) of sunflower, sesame, or coconut oil in the mouth before breakfast, and swishing or holding the oil in the mouth for 3 to 20 minutes. When pulling is complete, the oil is spit out and the mouth is rinsed with warm water.
While there are various theories on how oil pulling works, the exact mechanism is still unclear. Some theorize that the oil has a soap-like effect and cleans the teeth and gums, that the oil reduces plaque buildup and makes it harder for bacteria to stick, and that it may have antioxidant or antibiotic properties.
In addition, the action of swishing oil around your mouth may activate digestion, and when the oil mixes with digestive enzymes in your saliva, it may become a potentially powerful antiviral and antibacterial agent, says John Douillard, a doctor of chiropractic and a certified Ayurvedic practitioner in Niwot, Colorado. Coconut oil, for example, contains lauric acid, which reacts with saliva to form a soap-like substance that contains antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
It’s also believed that the oil acts as a protective coating, preventing plaque and bacteria from adhering to the teeth and gums.
On the other hand, David Chen, DDS, a general and cosmetic dentist in New York City, explains oil pulling in terms of its effect on the pH of the mouth. “Oral bacteria thrive in an acidic environment, but become muted in neutral and basic environments,” he says. “This is especially true when the pH of the mouth drops below 5.5.” (According to the pH scale, anything greater than 7 is basic, whereas anything less than 7 is acidic.)
When your mouth's pH drops below 5.5 and becomes more acidic — as when you eat — the enamel on your teeth starts to demineralize (the process of removing minerals) and cavities begin forming, according to a research paper. Your mouth’s pH rises when you brush your teeth or rinse your mouth, which gives your teeth the chance for repair via the remineralization process.
Oil pulling may be another way to bring your mouth’s pH back to neutral or basic levels, Dr. Chen says. Coconut oil, for example, has a pH of 7 to 8, he notes. Rinsing with it may theoretically cause the bacteria to become less active, “thus providing your body a chance to repair damage from acidic insults.”
Oil pulling is a relatively safe practice to do at home. But if you need advice about using oil pulling to address a specific concern, you might work with an Ayurvedic practitioner.
To date, Ayurvedic practitioners aren’t licensed in the United States, and there’s no national standard for training or certification, notes Johns Hopkins Medicine. National organizations such as the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) accredit Ayurvedic institutions and programs in the United States to ensure quality training and practice. You can find an Ayurvedic practitioner through their directory or search their list of accredited programs.
If you're concerned about your oral health or physical health, seek professional advice from a doctor or dentist.
There are two primary types of oil pulling described in Ayurvedic texts, says Larissa Hall Carlson, an Ayurveda practitioner in Manchester, Vermont. Here's what each type involves.
To perform kavala graha, per one research article, place 1 tablespoon of oil in the mouth and gargle for about 3 to 20 minutes (or as long as is tolerable) before spitting out the oil. According to Ayurvedic thought, the swishing motion, or kavala graha, will create more circulation, work the jaw muscles, and wash the teeth, Hall Carlson says. This type of oil pulling is more commonly used today because it tends to be manageable for most people, she notes.
In this approach, you fill your mouth with oil so that gargling isn’t possible, and hold it there for 3 to 5 minutes or up to 20 minutes, as described in the research above. Kavala gandusha is a more disciplined approach to oil pulling that hasn’t really become part of Western practice, Hall Carlson says. It also tends to be more meditative in nature, and may be more effective for dry mouth than kavala graha. “Holding oil in the mouth allows it to be absorbed into the sensitive skin inside the cheeks, gums, and tongue,” Hall Carlson explains.
There is minimal research to support the health benefits of oil pulling. Most studies are small, were conducted on adolescents, and are published in India. But according to the data that does exist, there are a few potential perks of oil pulling.
Certain bacteria in the mouth can cause tooth decay, bad breath, and periodontal disease (gum disease). Oil pulling may help reduce this harmful bacteria and improve oral health.
In a study published in the October–December 2019 Journal of the Indian Society of Pedodontics and Preventive Dentistry of 75 adolescents aged 12 to 14, those who swished sesame oil every day for 15 days significantly reduced Streptococcus mutans, bacteria that play a crucial role in tooth decay. Their results were similar to those of adolescents who used antibacterial mouthwash.
Similarly, another small study with 60 participants found that coconut oil pulling and antibacterial mouthwash were equally effective for reducing bacteria in the mouth.
Oil pulling may improve gum health in people with gingivitis (a mild gum disease) by killing harmful bacteria.
A study of 60 adolescents ages 16 to 18 found that oil pulling with coconut oil led to lower amounts of plaque and improved gum health in those with gingivitis.
An oil with anti-inflammatory properties like sesame oil may also help reduce gum inflammation associated with gingivitis. Another study, published in the March–April 2018 issue of the International Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry of 45 children ages 10 to 12 with gingivitis found that those who swished with antibacterial mouthwash and pulled with sesame oil had the same improvement in inflammation and plaque after 30 days.
Oil pulling is often used to treat halitosis, also known as bad breath. A study of 20 children found that those who rinsed with either sesame oil or chlorhexidine (an antiseptic used to treat gingivitis that was used in the above studies as well) saw a significant decrease in microorganisms linked to bad breath.
More research is needed to determine whether oil pulling has any effect on bad breath.
For healthy people, oil pulling is generally considered safe when practiced correctly.
“The main thing is to avoid doing it after recent surgery in the mouth,” Hall Carlson says. For example, after a procedure like a root canal or extraction, “where there’s still healing happening.” In this case, it’s always best to talk with your dentist or oral surgeon if you want to use any complementary approach before or recently after surgery.
It’s important to note that most research on oil pulling in adolescents evaluates children ages 5 and up. Because there are no national or global guidelines on the safety or mechanism of oil pulling, it’s best to consult your doctor or dentist before allowing children of any age to try oil pulling.
Oil pulling may be a better practice for some people than others. Here’s what you may want to know.
You might consider oil pulling if you’d like to prevent tooth decay and bad breath and strengthen the teeth and gums.
It’s also a complementary approach for people who take medications that dry out the mouth, such as antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and some antihistamines, per the Mayo Clinic. “There are mouthwashes designed for people with dry mouth, but you could simply use oil pulling instead [if approved by your doctor],” Hall Carlson says.
People who’ve had oral surgery or a mouth infection should wait until they’re fully healed to pull oil. Check with your dentist or doctor before trying oil pulling in this case.
In addition, people with strong gag reflexes may not be the best candidates for swishing oil. “Sometimes when just putting oil in the mouth, folks will gag,” Hall Carlson says. While having a strong gag reflex isn’t a contraindication for oil pulling, it may make it difficult for you to adopt the practice, she adds.
Interested in adding oil pulling to your oral hygiene routine? Use these tips from our experts to get started.
Most people who are just starting struggle to swish for the traditionally recommended 20 minutes. After all, the sensation of holding oil in the mouth is new for many. “It’s pretty gross at first,” Hall Carlson admits.
Plus, swishing any liquid for 20 minutes can be a workout for your jaw muscles.
So, ease in by practicing oil pulling for two to three minutes daily. “Consistency is more important than duration,” Hall Carlson says, in her personal and clinical opinion. Swishing oil for a few minutes every day may be better than doing it for 20 minutes occasionally. “Getting the oil into a clean mouth and swishing around for two to three minutes [may] hydrate the mouth, put a nice coating over the gums, strengthen the teeth, and support the gums,” Hall Carlson notes.
You can gradually increase the session lengths as you get used to the practice, aiming to reach 10 to 20 minutes daily.
Opt for herbalized oil. While you can use the plain sesame or coconut oil you find in the cooking aisle, they might not have an enjoyable taste to you. Herbalized options combine oil with herbs and spices. “Something with mint or cinnamon gives oil a familiar flavor that [may make] it more tolerable,” Hall Carlson says.
Ensure your oil is not processed. Douillard recommends an oil that’s organic and cold-pressed. Highly processed oils have been stripped of many nutrients and antioxidants and “are actually indigestible by the bacteria in your body,” he says. If you swish around highly processed oil, you may miss out on many of the benefits of oil pulling. When in doubt, it’s best to discuss it with an Ayurvedic practitioner who is skilled in this area.
Your oil pulling experience may vary depending on which type (kavala graha or kavala gandusha) you perform. Kavala graha (the swishing, rather than holding, technique) tends to be more common, so we’ve outlined what to expect before, during, and after this approach.
Per Ayurvedic philosophy, oil pulling is best performed in the morning on an empty stomach. It should also be done after brushing and flossing the teeth. “You always want to start with a clean mouth,” Hall Carlson says.
When you’re ready to begin oil pulling, measure out a tablespoon of oil and place it in your mouth. Keeping your mouth closed, swish the oil as you would mouthwash — gently or vigorously, through the teeth and gums. Make sure not to swallow the oil as you move it around your mouth, Hall Carlson says. As the oil mixes with your saliva, its consistency will thin, and the color will become milky white, per an aforementioned review. Spit out the oil after 20 minutes (or however long you swish — likely shorter, if you are starting out).
Note that the oil can clog drain pipes, so it’s best to spit the oil into a trash can or onto a paper towel.
Once you’ve spit out the oil, simply rinse your mouth with warm water.
It may take weeks — or even months — to notice any of oil pulling's benefits. “The timing of the benefits depends on the intensity of the condition you’re trying to improve,” Hall Carlson says. For example, folks with tooth decay may need to practice oil pulling for a few months to see a difference, she notes.
Your mouth will likely feel fresh and well-hydrated immediately after you pull oil.
The Ayurvedic Institute
Founded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1994, the Ayurvedic Institute is the leading Ayurvedic school in the United States. In addition to its educational curriculum, the school offers Ayurvedic treatments. You can find free educational resources like video lectures and articles on its website.
The Art of Living Retreat Center
This retreat center in Boone, North Carolina, hosts Ayurvedic retreats and provides wellness treatments. It also offers a blog where you can find posts about many Ayurvedic self-care practices, including oil pulling.
Founded in 1996, Banyan Botanicals is an Ayurvedic company that offers various products to support your Ayurvedic wellness journey — oil pulling included. Their Daily Swish oils are USDA organic and flavored (flavors include mint and cinnamon). Plus, you can check out their articles about oil pulling for more information about possible benefits and how-to instructions.
Georganics creates natural oral care products, from mineral toothpaste and floss to chewing gum and oil pulling mouthwash. Their oil pulling mouthwash is available in various flavors, including peppermint, tea tree, spearmint, charcoal, orange, and eucalyptus.
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