Your mouth is home to about 700 species of bacteria and fungi, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Some are helpful, and others — such as Streptococcus mutans — can cause tooth decay, dental caries, and periodontal disease (gum disease).
Some research suggests that oil pulling may help you get rid of this harmful bacteria. In one study published in 2019, adolescents who practiced oil pulling with sesame oil significantly lowered their Streptococcus mutans count after 15 days. That said, their results were similar to those of students who used antibacterial mouthwash.
Another study found similar benefits with coconut oil: Young adults who pulled with coconut oil and those who rinsed with antibacterial mouthwash significantly reduced oral bacteria after two weeks.
Though many theories exist for how oil pulling works, the exact mechanism of action is not known. Some theories include: The oil produces a soap-like effect and cleans the teeth and gums; the oil reduces plaque buildup and makes it harder for bacteria to stick; the oil may have an antioxidant or antibiotic-like effect, as described in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine and the aforementioned International Journal of Health Sciences review.
Still, the studies are relatively small, including only 75 adolescents (sesame oil) and 60 young adults (coconut oil), and come from India where Ayurvedic practices are more common and accepted. This makes it tricky to apply the findings to larger populations across varying age groups.
By potentially cleaning harmful bacteria from your mouth, oil pulling may help keep your gums healthy. It might even improve gum health if you have a mild form of gum disease known as gingivitis.
Gingivitis happens when plaque and bacteria build up and cause infection, resulting in red, swollen, bleeding gums, per the Cleveland Clinic. If left untreated, gingivitis can lead to a more severe type of gum disease known as periodontitis.
Gingivitis treatment typically includes rinsing with an antimicrobial mouthwash, but swishing oil may have similar effects. For example, one study in adolescents with gingivitis reveals that pulling with coconut oil significantly reduced plaque after one month.
As John Douillard, a doctor of chiropractic and a certified Ayurvedic practitioner in Niwot, Colorado, explains, oil can become a powerful antiviral and antibacterial agent when it mixes with the digestive enzymes in your mouth. Coconut oil, for one, contains lauric acid, a fatty acid that morphs into an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory substance when mixed with saliva, Douillard notes.
Research suggests that the anti-inflammatory properties of oil may also improve gingivitis-related inflammation. In another study, children with gingivitis who pulled with sesame oil experienced similar improvements in gum inflammation and plaque after one month, as those who used antibacterial mouthwash and probiotic mouthwash.
More research is needed, and in varying age groups, to understand if and how oil pulling might keep your gums healthy.
According to article in StatPearls, an estimated 50 percent of people in the United States suffer from halitosis, better known as bad breath. Halitosis often happens when food lingers in your mouth and rots, causing a foul smell and helping harmful bacteria grow, per the American Academy of Family Physicians. Oil pulling may help you achieve a fresher mouth by killing bacteria that contribute to bad breath.
In one study, children who swished sesame oil once daily for two weeks saw a significant decrease in microorganisms known to cause halitosis. Their results were similar to those of participants who used chlorhexidine, an antiseptic commonly used to treat gingivitis.
The study included only 20 children (10 in each experimental group). Larger, more recent studies across varying age groups are needed to confirm oil pulling's ability to improve halitosis.
Some Ayurvedic practitioners claim that oil pulling offers benefits beyond oral health, for conditions such as headaches, asthma, and diabetes, per the review in the International Journal of Health Sciences.
It’s true that a healthy mouth is a vital part of overall health and well-being. Problems with your teeth and gums may open the door to other health concerns, including heart disease and stroke, notes the Cleveland Clinic. “Bacteria can find its way through the teeth and gums into the bloodstream,” Douillard says. Once in the bloodstream, this bacteria can cause infection and inflammation in other areas of the body, including the heart, although this is uncommon.
The authors of a research article published in January 2021 in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine note the link between heart disease and periodontal disease is still unclear, and more research is needed to better understand the potential relationship between the two diseases.
Moreover, the link between the practice of oil pulling and overall wellness needs more research, beyond anecdotal claims or Ayurvedic texts. Currently, there are no Western studies to support how oil pulling might prevent or treat health complaints like headaches, asthma, or diabetes.
That said, oil pulling is considered a generally safe practice — albeit potentially challenging at first, according to Hall Carlson — for most healthy individuals, who aren’t healing from oral surgery or infection. If you’re considering trying oil pulling, consult your dentist, and find an Ayurvedic practitioner through the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) directory for guidance.