It lasted just a little longer than a week. Three years ago for 10 days, Jennifer Beckinsale woke up each morning, poured a tablespoon of coconut oil into her mouth and swished it around for 20 minutes.
“Oil pulling was catching on like wildfire back in 2014, with people talking about a wide range of benefits from improved skin to whiter teeth,” says Beckinsale, 34, a Chicago-area graphic designer and blogger. “In reality, oil pulling has been around for quite some time, so it seemed like maybe there was some legitimacy to people’s claims.”
Beckinsale learned about oil pulling from a fellow blogger, who asked her to do a 10-day challenge with her. “I figured, why not?” she says.
And it worked — at least to some extent, Beckinsale says. “As far as benefits go, I did notice that my teeth were slightly whiter,” around day five. Also, the more than 20 allergies Beckinsale has (including nickel, polyester, tree pollen, cats and dogs), and her contact dermatitis — a form of eczema — seemed to clear up.
Although it might not be the most pleasant experience at first, some evidence shows that this ancient dental practice should be embraced. But many experts argue against the claims that it’s a worthwhile practice for whiter and brighter teeth, healthier gums and better-smelling breath.
Behind the swishing
Oil pulling began in India as a natural, holistic healing practice falling under the practice of Ayurveda. Ayurveda is a system of medicine developed 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, says Dr. Gigi Meinecke of the Academy of General Dentistry, who has a private dental practice in Potomac, Maryland.
“Sunflower and sesame oils were some of the first oils used,” she says. “The Ayurvedic practitioners believed oil pulling had both oral and systemic benefits ranging from curing headache, asthma, diabetes, bleeding gums, tooth decay, bad breath, dry lips and even straightening teeth.”
Ayurvedic literature calls the technique by two names: “Gandusha” or “Kavala Graha,” and it advises using a vegetable oil, such as sesame. “The practice is recommended to be performed daily and on an empty stomach,” Meinecke says. “The Ayurvedic theory is that this process will attract and pull other fat-soluble toxins from the surfaces of the oral cavity.”
Some advocates have claimed swishing around any type of oil in the mouth daily may whiten teeth, reduce bacteria, boost gum and jaw health, improve the skin and clear sinuses.
“Oil pulling is a great oral detoxification procedure that’s simply done by swishing a tablespoon of oil in your mouth for 10 to 20 minutes,” says Dr. David Friedman, a naturopathy physician and nutritionist in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Bacteria and acid can hide along the gums, between the teeth and in crevices of the mouth. And this technique literally pulls out unwanted bacteria and fungi. It also helps prevent tooth decay and combats bad breath.”
Because oil pulling can remove bacteria that cause bad breath, it may also be used in place of mouthwash, Friedman says, for those who want to go a more natural route for their oral hygiene.
“Mouthwash is actually counterproductive,” he says. “Most mouthwashes contain alcohol. While this ingredient does kill germs that cause bad breath, it can dry out the mouth, creating a breeding ground for even more bacteria to form.”
There’s plenty of interest in oil pulling because of the many claims of curing ailments, removing toxins and curing cavities, says Dr. Corbin Brady, a dentist in Des Moines, Iowa.
“The only benefits that can be verified, however, are the antibacterial properties of fatty acids like linoleic acid and lauric acid” that are in coconut oil, Brady says.
According to the American Dental Association, currently “there are no reliable scientific studies to show that oil pulling reduces cavities, whitens teeth or improves oral health and well-being.” Based on the lack of scientific evidence, the ADA “does not recommend oil pulling as a dental hygiene practice.”
Meinecke, Friedman and Brady all agree that oil pulling shouldn’t fill in for brushing and flossing. “It’s a complementary addition to your oral hygiene routine,” Friedman says. “Oil pulling can be a great adjunct to a holistic, healthy lifestyle.”
According to Meinecke, common sense should dictate restrictions. “Anyone who is either too young or incapable of holding oil in their mouth without swallowing it is not a candidate for this practice,” she says, adding that people who have shortness of breath or shallow breathing shouldn’t attempt oil pulling.
Push and pull
Beckinsale gave up her oil-pulling routine and hasn’t returned to it since those 10 days in 2014. “The major drawback is that it’s anything but convenient,” she says. “I would recommend it to people who want their teeth a little whiter but are allergic or sensitive to the usual whitening methods.”
If you want to give it a try, the actual process is rather simple. “You stick a tablespoon of oil in your mouth and swish it around, then spit it out,” Beckinsale says. “I’ll admit it doesn’t taste great. It has a very mild taste and pretty much just tastes like fat. I purchased the oil at a local grocery store. It was about $7 for a big jar.”
Having oil in your mouth for that length of time can be quite the workout on the jaw, too, she says. “I’m rarely quietly sitting around for 20 minutes, so I had to figure out the right time to do this every day, which ended up being in the shower,” Beckinsale says.
Remember not to spit the oil into your sink or shower drain when you’re done because it’s fat, after all, and will harden when it cools down, possibly damaging the drains.
Friedman says you should also try to go organic when buying oils. “The last thing you want to do is to put more chemicals and impurities into your mouth,” he says. “People can do oil pulling daily. I personally do it every other day.”
Dr. Jeff Dalin, a St. Louis dentist, doesn’t see any harm in people partaking in oil pulling if they desire to. He also concurs that daily brushing and flossing must take precedent over it.
“If they feel their teeth look and feel better, as long as they are still performing regular brushing along with it, then I place the decision to use oil pulling in their own hands,” Dalin says.