Can a 3,000 year old Ayurvedic practice whiten your teeth, reduce bad breath, detox your body and make unicorns appear? I haven’t been able to find studies to support all of those claims (though I’m really holding out for the unicorn one), but there is scientific evidence that coconut oil pulling may:
- Reduce oral bacteria that contributes to tooth decay and gum inflammation
- Counteract bad breath
- Support overall oral health, which is linked to gut health and cardiovascular health
- Decrease plaque formation, which can make teeth look dingy and yellow
We’ll dive into the details in just a moment, but first I want to mention that none of these statements have been evaluated by the FDA, this article is not medical advice, and it is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive in.
What is oil pulling?
Hippocrates once said that “All disease begins in the gut,” but we don’t usually give much thought to where the gut starts – the mouth. As ethnopharmacologist Cass Nelson-Dooley puts it in this fascinating interview:
If we think of the gastrointestinal tract as a river, then the mouth is the headwater, the source of that river. It sets the stage for everything that comes after in the gastrointestinal tract and in the whole body.”
There are hundreds of microorganisms living in our mouths. Many of them are friendly – like this strain that supports ear, nose and throat health. Others . . . not so much.
The bacteria that make up our oral microbiome – both good and bad – form biofilms on our teeth and gums called plaque. A little plaque is normal, but excessive plaque buildup can lead to problems including gum inflammation, bad breath and tooth decay.
Also known as“kavala” or “gundusha,” traditional Ayurvedic oil pulling involves swishing or “pulling” about a tablespoon of oil throughout your mouth for 20 minutes or so. It’s usually done on an empty stomach and there are a few other details that you need to know before getting started – which I’ll cover in a step-by-step guide below – but here’s how it helps with biofilms:
- Most of the microorganisms that live in our mouth are single cell organisms that are wrapped in a lipid (fatty) membrane.
- When oil is swished around your teeth and gums, the outer fatty membranes of the microorganisms are drawn to it like a magnet. Thanks to this effect, pockets of microbes are sucked out of their hiding places and become suspended in the liquid. (1)
- When you spit out the oil in the trash can, you manually remove these microbes. Certain oils, such as coconut oil, also appear to selectively inhibit the growth of certain types of harmful bacteria, which may help to balance the oral microbiome in favor of the friendly guys.
The Problem With Antibacterial Mouthwash
Often touted as “Bad for bacteria, good for gums,” antibacterial mouthwash doesn’t discern between good bacteria and pathogenic bacteria.
That’s a problem, because we swallow about one trillion bacteria everyday – a process that is “continuously seeding the gastrointestinal tract with bacteria.” (2) For example:
H. pylori can be a very stubborn infection to get rid of. It turns out that H. pylori lives in dental biofilms in the mouth. When people had dental cleanings, they were less likely to get reinfected with H. pylori. This is just one example of how bacteria in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract are directly influenced by the bacteria in the mouth. When patients have chronic gastrointestinal dysbiosis, it may be originating in the mouth, and they should be evaluated for periodontal disease.” (2)
Unfortunately, the broad-spectrum approach taken by antibacterial mouthwash may exacerbate the issue. According to this article in Scientific American, “wiping out too many of the mouth’s native bacteria” with alcohol-based mouthwashes “could disrupt the usual checks and balances, making way for opportunistic species responsible for gum disease and other infections to move in and take over.”
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil Pulling
Oil pulling is an easy, inexpensive way to support a balanced oral microbiome naturally. Here are some of the top benefits:
1. Reduces Bacteria That Contribute To Tooth Decay
According to researchers from the Athlone Institute of Technology in Ireland, coconut oil mixed with enzymes that simulate digestion “strongly inhibited the growth of most strains of Streptococcus bacteria including Streptococcus mutans — an acid-producing bacterium that is a major cause of tooth decay.”
Other studies have found that coconut oil works as well as chlorhexidine – an ingredient found in some mouthwashes – and should be explored as a safe alternative. (3) In this one, swishing for just 10 minutes a day significantly reduced Streptococcus mutans within two weeks.
Also, this study found that fatty acids found in virgin coconut oil were helpful for balancing yeast in the mouth.
2. Improves Gum Health
As I mentioned above, the microorganisms that make up our oral microbiome create biofilms, aka plaque. While a little is normal, excessive plaque buildup can cause something called plaque-induced gingivitis, aka gum inflammation.
In several studies, oil pulling decreased plaque formation after a period of 1-4 weeks (depending on the study). (1)(4)(5)(6)
3. Helps With Bad Breath
When excess bacteria are present in the mouth, they release large amounts sulfur compounds that cause halitosis (bad breath). Unfortunately, the usual “fix” recommended for this doesn’t work:
According to many experts, mouthwash does not eliminate bad breath. The mouthwash works at first — killing lots of germs. Then, the bad news. Tierno says that the bad breath you wanted to prevent gets even worse. He says the alcohol content present in many mouthwashes can dry your mouth out. When the saliva glands are dry, they are unable to help wash away bacteria so the stinky stuff flourishes.”
On the flipside, several studies have concluded that regular oil pulling reduces the excess bacteria that contribute to oral malodor without drying out the mouth. (7)(8)(9)
4. May Support Overall Health
A good oral care routine may support overall cardiovascular health. According to ethnopharmacologist Dr. Nelson-Dooley notes that, “In people with coronary artery disease, simply beginning an oral hygiene program reduced their cardiac events.”
On the flipside, “One study showed that using mouthwash eliminated the beneficial effects of healthy oral bacteria and raised blood pressure.” (2)
Oral health also directly impacts gut health. As mentioned above, we swallow about 1 trillion microbes per day – a process that profoundly impacts our gut microbiome.
While regular brushing, flossing and dental cleanings are the foundation of oral care, oil pulling may be helpful as well. More research is needed to determine whether it has measurable systemic benefits.
5. May Whiten Teeth
People who oil pull regularly often report that it whitens teeth naturally. While no studies have been done to confirm this effect, some do mention it as a likely benefit. (10)
Plaque can make teeth look dingy and yellow, so it’s possible that the ability of oil pulling to decrease plaque formation may be the reason for the perceived whitening effect.
Which oil is best?
The most commonly used oils are:
- Coconut oil
- Sesame oil
- Sunflower oil
- Olive oil
Ideally the oil you choose would be cold-pressed because it’s the method that best preserves antioxidants. My top choice is coconut oil because it’s rich in lauric acid, an anti-inflammatory fatty acid that has been shown in studies to make conditions less friendly for unwanted microrganisms like Escherichia vulneris, Enterobcater spp., Helicobacter pylori, Staphylococcus aureus, Candida spp., including C. albicans, C. glabrata, C. tropicalis, C. parapsilosis, C. stellatoidea and C. krusei7, S. mutans and C. albicans. (1)
Step-By-Step Guide To Coconut Oil Pulling
- Place about a tablespoon of virgin coconut oil in your mouth and begin swishing it all around. If you’re finding it difficult to hold the oil in your mouth without swallowing some, spit some out in to the trash and try a smaller amount.
- Gently swish the oil for 5-20 minutes. Longer is typically considered better, but do what works best with your schedule.
- When you’re done, spit the oil into the garbage. Don’t swallow it or spit it into the sink/toilet.
- Before eating or drinking anything rinse your mouth with warm water. Purified water or water that has been mixed with mineral-rich sea salt are both good options. Mineral-rich saliva contributes to tooth remineralization, which is a normal biological response to ongoing demineralization from acidic foods, etc. (11) (12)
Most guides to oil pulling suggest brushing your teeth immediately. However, newer recommends often say to brush beforehand so that the anti-inflammatory compounds in the oil are able to maintain longer contact with the mouth after a session.
Personally, I opt to brush and floss before oil pulling.
Tip: Want to simplify your routine and include a healthy, natural whitening ingredient in your oil pulling regimen? Check out this post on making coconut oil pulling chews with teeth whitening turmeric.
Frequently Asked Questions
When unfriendly bacteria try to work synergistically together in the mouth, they communicate via quorum sensing. Oils such as clove, cinnamon, spearmint, peppermint and myrrh may promote healthy flora balance in the mouth by regulating quorum sensing. (13)
Generally, a 1-2% dilution (3-6 drops in one tablespoon coconut oil) is considered appropriate, but according to Essential Oil Safety, cinnamon leaf and clove leaf should not be used at a dilution higher than 0.6% (about 7 drops in four tablespoons coconut oil). Clove bud should not be used at a dilution higher than 0.5% (2 drops in 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coconut oil).
This Healthy Mouth blend is pre-diluted to 2% and can be used as-is to brush with or added to coconut oil to swish with.
According to this study, “It is contraindicated for children below 5 years due to risk of aspiration,” aka accidentally breathing food or fluid into the lungs. (10) In children over five, they mention that a teaspoon of oil is the most common amount used. Talk with your healthcare provider before incorporating this practice with children.
Yes. As long as it’s fresh when purchased, coconut oil has a shelf life of about two years. Essential oils, on the other hand, tend to oxidize sooner. Make sure to use essential oils that have been purchased relatively recently and are stored properly in a cool area out of direct sunlight. Keep your oil pulling mixture stored into the same conditions (cool area out of direct sunlight) and use within three months.
How To Do Oil Pulling With Coconut Oil
- 1 tbsp virgin coconut oil
- Place about a tablespoon of virgin coconut oil in your mouth and begin swishing it all around. If you're finding it difficult to hold the oil in your mouth without swallowing some, spit some out in to the trash and try a smaller amount.
- Gently swish the oil for 5-20 minutes. Longer is typically considered better, but do what works best with your schedule.
- When you're done, spit the oil into the garbage. Don't swallow it or spit it into the sink/toilet.
- Before eating or drinking anything rinse your mouth with warm water. Purified water or water that has been mixed with mineral-rich sea salt are both good options. Mineral-rich saliva contributes to tooth remineralization, which is a normal biological response to ongoing demineralization from acidic foods, etc.
1. Peedikayil, Faizal C. et. al. (2015) Effect of coconut oil in plaque related gingivitis — A preliminary report
2. Burhenne, Mark (2020) The Oral Microbiome & Its Impact on Every Other System in the Body
3. Peedikayil, Faizal C et. al. (2016) Comparison of antibacterial efficacy of coconut oil and chlorhexidine on Streptococcus mutans: An in vivo study
5. Asokan, Sharath et. al. (2009) Effect of oil pulling on plaque induced gingivitis: a randomized, controlled, triple-blind study
6. Hv, Amith et. al. (2007) Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque and Gingivitis
7. Asokan, Sharath et. al. (2011) Effect of oil pulling on halitosis and microorganisms causing halitosis: a randomized controlled pilot trial
9. Faisal S Sheikh and Ramya R Iyer (2016) The effect of oil pulling with rice bran oil, sesame oil, and chlorhexidine mouth rinsing on halitosis among pregnant women: A comparative interventional study
10. Shanbhag, Vagish Kumar L. (2017) Oil pulling for maintaining oral hygiene – A review
11. Karlinsey, Robert L (2012) Remineralization of Eroded Enamel Lesions by Simulated Saliva In Vitro
12. Danielle Rulli, RDH, MS, DHSc and Elizabeth I. Pitts, RDH, MS (2018) Saliva’s Role in Remineralization
13. Khan, M S A et. al. (2009) Inhibition of quorum sensing regulated bacterial functions by plant essential oils with special reference to clove oil