Is Oil-Pulling the New Mouth Wash?

By Geraldine Campbell

With Expert Siva Mohan, MD, MPH

Gwyneth and Shailene do it—should you, too?

Oil pulling is up there with meditation as one of the most talked about health practices of the past year. The technique, which has been touted by A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Shailene Woodley for its oral hygiene benefits, involves swishing oil (any will do, though coconut and sesame oils are the most commonly used) in your mouth for around 15 to 20 minutes, which theoretically pulls out bacteria from its hiding places, helping to resolve all sorts of health issues.

Oil pulling isn’t an exact science, even the amount you should use isn’t precise. “Take a swig—or a spoonful if you’re using coconut oil,” says Long Beach, California-based Ayurvedic practitioner Siva Mohan, MD, MPH. Most oil pulling advocates recommend doing it first thing in the morning—Mohan does it after her morning chai—and if you want to reap the benefits, you need to do it daily. Besides whiter teeth, fresher breath, and healthier gums, other alleged advantages include clearer skin, increased energy, better digestion, and even a lower risk of heart failure. Indeed, if you believe everything you read, oil pulling is nothing short of a panacea.

“Oil pulling helps prevent imbalance in the body,” explains Mohan. Because oil is unctuous and moist, it helps balance disorders like receding gum lines, depleted bone tissue, and ridged, fragile teeth. Oil’s soothing qualities help heal inflammations as well—cold sores, blisters, abscesses, ulcers—while the swishing movement helps clear out toxins. “The swishing practice actual debrides—a medical term for cleaning out the shmutz,” Mohan adds.

But before you start stocking your medicine cabinet with coconut oil, here’s what you should know about the trend that is, ahem, swishing the nation.

For starters, oil pulling isn’t exactly a 3,000-year-old practice. According to Claudia Welch, a doctor of Oriental medicine and ayurvedic practitioner, oil pulling has its origins in two different Ayurvedic rituals: the first, gandusha, involves holding oil in the mouth; the second, kavala graha, is the gargling of oil. But, said the author of Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, the practice as we understand it today, which is more of a swishing technique, is a relatively modern interpretation of these ancient traditions.

Regardless of its exact history, experts agree that there are at least some advantages to daily swooshing. Welch notes that, “since oil pulling should increase blood flow to the oral tissues, I would expect it to benefit pain and inflammation there, and possibly for it to help reduce stagnation and inflammation in other local tissues, including the sinuses, jaw, throat, and possibly tissues as far away as the eyes or top or sides of the head.”

Sanda Moldovan, DDS., a periodontist in Beverly Hills, has a similar assessment of oil pulling. She reasons that a healthier mouth means less inflammation, better general health, and more energy. “When we do the swishing back and forth, the oil turns into a soap-like substance and that soap washes around the tooth and about a millimeter under the gum,” she explains. But, Moldovan also notes that there are more efficient ways to get a clean mouth, notably using a Waterpik. She also adds that oil pulling is not a replacement for brushing and flossing.

But Mohan also has her own personal success story with oil pulling: After giving birth to her second child, Mohan’s dentist told her she had 11 cavities and needed a root canal. “I began oil pulling everyday in earnest,” she recalls. Six weeks later, she went back to the same dentist and he gave her teeth a clean bill of health.

As for claims to benefits other than oral health, Mohan remains skeptical: “I don’t really buy into it. Could it help? Sure. But is it going to be my go-to? No.”

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