What Really Happens to Your Body When You Oil Pull

Oil pulling involves swishing coconut or sesame oil in your mouth.
Image Credit: Sergey Mironov/Moment/GettyImages

What Really Happens to Your Body When examines the head-to-toe effects of common behaviors, actions and habits in your everyday life.

From charcoal toothpaste to organic floss and tongue scraping, there have been a lot of dental health trends over the years touted to benefit your smile.

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One such trend is called oil pulling, which is actually a long-standing practice of ancient Ayurvedic medicine in India. It involves swishing oil — like sesame or coconut oil — in your mouth for about 20 minutes to promote dental hygiene, per a June 2016 review in the ‌Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine‌.

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Some practitioners believe that oil pulling is linked to things like freshened breath and detoxified blood, but there's not enough scientific evidence to support these claims.

And while the American Dental Association does not recommend oil pulling (they instead encourage traditional dental hygiene practices like brushing and flossing), some studies have shown that oil pulling may be a beneficial practice in conjunction with these methods.

So what really happens when you oil pull? Read on to find out.

It May Freshen Your Breath

There's some research to show that oil pulling with sesame oil may help fight bad breath.

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Bad breath often happens if there's a buildup of plaque on your teeth, which can lead to tooth decay and gingivitis — i.e., inflammation in your gums caused by bacteria, per the Mayo Clinic.

Typically, dentists will give people a prescription mouthwash to help kill off bacteria (per the Cleveland Clinic), but one small November 2014 study in the ‌Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research‌ found that over a three-week period, oil pulling was just as effective as chlorhexidine (a prescription mouthwash) in reducing bad breath and the microbes that cause it.

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Another December 2019 study in ‌Complementary Therapies in Medicine‌ used 29 participants to examine how oil pulling affected plaque regrowth over a four-day period after a dental cleaning. They found that chlorhexidine wash and oil pulling had similar inhibitory activity.

But because these types of studies are small and limited, dentists still don't typically recommend oil pulling in the place of chlorhexidine wash.

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"Most of the studies were with small numbers of people, for short periods of time and without standardized methods and outcomes," says Frank A. Scannapieco, DMD, PhD, a periodontist and chair of oral biology at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine.

Plus, while oil pulling may reduce bacteria, it doesn't have much of an effect on the amount of plaque or gingivitis in your mouth, per an October 2022 meta-analysis in Healthcare.

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The bottom line: While you can try oil pulling for fresh breath, chlorhexidine (i.e., prescription mouthwash) is well-studied to show its clinical effectiveness, so Dr. Scannapieco recommends this over oil pulling for bad breath.

It Probably Won’t Whiten Your Teeth

While there's a lot of anecdotal evidence online that oil pulling whitens teeth, there are no clinical studies to show this is true.

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But because oil pulling may help reduce bacteria (and thereby the buildup of plaque), it ‌could‌ give your smile a cleaner and brighter appearance, even though it can't actually ‌whiten‌ your teeth.

Instead, if you're interested in getting your teeth whitened, ask your dentist about other safe and effective options.

It Won’t Detox Your Blood

Some holistic practitioners believe that oil pulling can detoxify your blood and cure many different diseases, but no studies have shown benefits beyond oral health.

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That said, it's true that your oral health can affect your overall health, especially when it comes to inflammatory conditions. Newer research is needed to solidify this connection, but one older standout September 2012 review in the ‌Journal of Evidence Based Dental Practice‌ found that poor oral health is potentially associated with inflammatory conditions like heart disease and autoimmune diseases.

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And according to Dr. Scannapieco, with oil pulling "it's possible that fat-dissolving, pro-inflammatory toxins in your mouth would be extracted or "pulled," making them less likely to induce inflammation."

Ultimately, the best way to maintain oral hygiene for your overall health is through brushing, flossing and visiting the dentist regularly.

If you want to try oil pulling, it should still be done alongside well-studied hygiene methods, like brushing and flossing.

How to Oil Pull

There's not a lot of evidence that oil pulling will do everything that some holistic health practitioners claim.

That said, it's generally harmless to try, and if you want to see if it benefits your personal oral health, here are some steps to do so:

  1. Swish 1 tablespoon of oil in your mouth for 20 minutes. If your jaw hurts, do it for a shorter amount of time. You can use any kind of oil (like sunflower, sesame or coconut), but most studies done on the practice use sesame oil. Some guides recommend oil pulling early in the morning on an empty stomach.
  2. Spit the oil into a paper towel and dispose of it in the garbage. It's important not to swallow the oil or put it down the sink, as it can clog the drain.
  3. While guides vary, most suggest brushing your teeth after oil pulling.

The Bottom Line

Oil pulling is a long-standing practice in Ayurvedic medicine and is thought to have many oral and overall health benefits.

But ultimately, more research is needed to determine whether oil pulling is actually effective for your oral and overall health. Most studies that have been done so far are small, limited and have mixed results.

There's no harm in trying oil pulling for yourself (to see if it freshens your breath), but the best way to keep your mouth healthy? Keep brushing, flossing and visiting your dentist for regular checkups.

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references

Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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