The Truth About Oil Pulling

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Oil pulling is an ancient ayurvedic therapy for maintaining oral hygiene. It involves swishing approximately 1 tablespoon of oil typically edible oils including coconut, sesame, or sunflower oil in your mouth for about 20 minutes and then spitting it out.1 The popularity of oil pulling has seen a recent surge in popularity, and I am often asked about it.

Scientific Evidence

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In a 2015 study of 60 coconut oil pulling subjects, a statistically significant decrease in the plaque and gingival indices was noticed from day 7 and the scores continued to decrease during the period of study. Oil pulling using coconut oil could be an effective adjuvant procedure in decreasing plaque formation and plaque induced gingivitis.2  Monolaurin, a key component of coconut oil, has virus killing activity by dissolving the viral coating; leading to disintegration of virus.3 I use monolaurin as a functional medicine practitioner against bacterial and viral infections when appropriate. Sucrose monolaurate, also found in coconut oil, has anti-cavity properties due to reduction in starch breakdown and table sugar (sucrose) oxidation by S. mutans and thus prevents the formation of dental plaque.4 A 2008 study of coconut oil pullers showed a reduction in the cavity causing bacteria S. mutans count in the plaque after. In 2011 Tippanart et al. found that coconut oil exhibited antimicrobial activity against S. mutans and C. albicans. Additionally, they found that sesame oil had antibacterial activity against S. mutans whereas sunflower oil had antifungal activity against C. albicans.5 Anand et al in their study observed 20% reduction in bacterial count upon 40 days of oil pulling using sesame oil. Also, they observed reductions in the severity of dental caries. Sesame oil was observed to possess moderate antimicrobial activity against S. mutans and L. acidophilus.6 The paper by Vagish Kumar L. Shanbhag entitled “Oil pulling for maintaining oral hygiene – A review” cites a total of 15 studies supporting the benefits of oil pulling. 7 This all sound like very good news, and it is, but…

How Strong Is The Evidence?

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In 2013 an extensive review of the literature was done by Kensche, Reich,  Kümmerer, Hanning and Hanning. They assumed that the oil decreased the colonization of bacteria to teeth, eventually decreasing susceptibility to tooth decay. Based on their extensive review of the existing literature, they surmised that the oil impregnated tooth structure might be more resistant in case of acid exposure and could therefore reduce mineral loss. They also noted that anti-inflammatory effects on the oral soft tissues were described in the literature. However, due to the lack of rigorous scientific scrutiny of most of the papers, their conclusion was that edible oils might be used as oral hygiene supplements but a decisive benefit for the oral health status is questionable.

My Take

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My experience is that my patients that oil pull are usually healthier than average and have fewer dental problems. Does that mean it is all from the oil pulling? No. There is such a thing called the healthy user bias which I wrote about in a previous post. A plausible explanation of the findings is that health conscious people are practicing a wide variety of healthy behaviors and no single behavior can be assigned as the sole factor in better health. The best way to avoid tooth decay and gum disease is to stay away from processed carbohydrates. However, if you are like most people, you will eat some processed carbs from time to time. If you fall into this group, I do recommend oil pulling if you are willing to do it properly for 20 minutes per day. I recommend extra virgin coconut oil because it is the least processed oil, and the literature is solid regarding its ability to kill germs. Don’t forget, you still need to see the dentist regularly!