The Science Behind Oil Pulling

© 2015 by Kate Parker, RDH, BS-DH, RF

oil pullingOil pulling is as effective at decreasing the bacterial load in the mouth as some of the most potent conventional methods

Everyone is talking about oil pulling these days, and there is a huge debate as to whether it works or not. This is because everyone is judging it based on personal opinion. There is so much misinformation about it from every side that I wanted to write an article about it.

Most people don't realize that modern science, clinical evidence, and thousands of years of historical use supports oil pulling as beneficial for both oral and systemic health. In fact, it is as effective at decreasing the bacterial load in the mouth as some of the most potent conventional methods like chlorhexidine gluconate.

Oral disease generally develops when bacterial levels in the mouth remain high and are undisrupted over a period of time. Decreasing the bacterial load in the mouth is the main goal of maintaining oral hygiene. It's why we brush, floss, use a Waterpik, and chew sugar-free xylitol gum. 

Oil pulling therapy does the same exact thing. It helps dislodge and remove bacteria and toxins from the oral mucosal tissues and teeth. It helps keep bacterial levels low enough that diseased tissues can relax and heal, and the entire system can return to normal. The science is in favor of its use as an adjunct to normal oral hygiene care (brushing and flossing.)

What Is Oil Pulling?

oil pullingOil pulling minimizes the bacterial load in the mouth

Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic technique used for removing bacteria and toxins from the oral cavity. Generally speaking, coconut or other vegetable oils are swished in the mouth, and through this action bacteria are removed from the oral cavity.

This is significant because bacteria are responsible for causing dental decay, gum disease, bone loss, tooth loss, and necrotizing oral diseases. Since the body is one interconnected system, inflammation in the mouth causes inflammation in the entire body. Chronic inflammation caused by undisrupted bacteria in the mouth contributes to the development of diabetes, heart disease, and other inflammatory diseases

Removal of bacteria on an ongoing basis is necessary to prevent disease in the mouth and body. Oil pulling effectively removes bacteria from the mouth and tissues. Just 20% of the oral cavity is composed of teeth; the rest is oral tissues and the tongue. Continued use of oil pulling keeps the bacterial load in the mouth to a minimum.

People's mouths generally show signs of improvement within a week of swishing with oil daily. The most noticeable signs are that gingivitis begins to heal, the gums no longer bleed, the breath smells fresh, and the tissues and tongue appear pinker and more healthful. 

Disclaimer: In no way should oil pulling take the place of regular dental care, whether conventional or holistic. Proper oral hygiene involves ongoing maintenance and care at home, in addition to dental visits to ensure the teeth and tissues are healthy and disease-free.

The Science: How Does Oil Pulling Work?

Much of what happens in the body is ionic, or takes place due to the charges on interacting atoms. This ionic interaction is a driving force in the mouth as well. In fact many of the best and most effective oral hygiene methods capitalize on the fact that opposite charges attract and like charges repel.

  • Teeth have a negative charge
  • Salivary proteins have a positive charge
  • Bacteria have a negative charge
  • Oil has a negative charge

Since the teeth have a negative charge, they attract the positively charged salivary proteins, which forms the basis of bacterial plaque in the mouth. Oral bacteria floating around in the mouth adhere to the salivary proteins and form a matrix. The introduction of negatively charged oil forges a bond between the bacterial matrix and oil. This mixture eventually emulsifies.

A constant swishing action attracts more and more plaque bacteria away from the tissues and into the oil. At the end, the oil is spit out along with the oral bacteria. The mouth is then rinsed of any remaining oil. It leaves a thoroughly clean feeling in the mouth, heals tissues, freshens breath, and also whitens teeth (ionically.) 

How Effective Is Oil Pulling?

oil pullingDiseased oral tissues (top) vs. Healthy oral tissues (bottom) after reducing the bacterial load in the mouth

Chronically inflamed tissues appear red, they bleed, and they may pull away from the teeth due to destruction of collagen fibers. By removing the source of inflammation (plaque bacteria) and maintaining good basic oral hygiene, tissues heal, stop bleeding, and become firm again.

Oil pulling is very effective at decreasing the bacterial load in the mouth (reducing plaque), in healing gingivitis, curing halitosis or bad breath, and in helping to maintain healthy oral mucosal tissues (the tissues that line the oral cavity and surround the teeth.) What I have seen in patients who have started oil pulling is a drastic change in the color, quality, and elasticity of their oral mucosa. Tissues firm up, gums become healthier, the tongue is no longer coated (in bacteria), and the teeth become whiter

A few quotes from the 'conclusions' section of journal articles:

  • "The myth that the effect of oil-pulling therapy on oral health was just a placebo effect has been broken and there are clear indications of a possible saponification and emulsification process, which enhances its mechanical cleaning action."1
  • "Oil pulling with sesame oil is equally efficacious as chlorhexidine in reducing oral malodor and microbes causing it. It should be promoted as a preventive home care therapy."2
  • "Oil pulling therapy has been equally effective like chlorhexidine on halitosis and organisms associated with halitosis."3
  • "Oil pulling therapy showed a reduction in the plaque index, modified gingival scores, and total colony count of aerobic microorganisms in the plaque of adolescents with plaque-induced gingivitis."4
  • "Oil pulling can be used as an effective preventive adjunct in maintaining and improving oral health."5

The Pros & Cons Of Oil Pulling

oil pulling

Most websites seem to either be completely for or completely against oil pulling. This is because people tend to become invested in a mission rather than presenting the actual facts. This is fine, but it doesn't allow readers to make their own informed decisions.

I think it's important to present both sides of the argument. Like just about anything, there are pros and cons to oil pulling. It is not all good and not all bad.

That said, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. As far as not being the most "efficient" natural tooth whitener, activated coconut charcoal powder takes 1/4 of the time daily with better long term results.

For some reason oil pulling and other natural dental remedies are often viewed as "crazy" amongst conventional dental professionals. The truth is, the science backs many of these remedies up, and often they are much healthier than conventional products on the market. As with any alternative product, do your own research of the *actual* peer-reviewed studies that are currently available.

How To Oil Pull

  1. Put 1 teaspoon of coconut oil or sesame oil into your mouth
  2. Swish continuously and vigorously for 15-20 minutes
  3. Do Not Swallow the oil and bacteria mixture
  4. When the time is up, spit the mixture into the trash, or else mix with dish soap before putting it down the sink drain
  5. Rinse your mouth thoroughly with warm water a few times to remove bacteria
  6. Brush your teeth as normal
  7. For best results, oil pull daily
  8. Results should be apparent within one week of daily use

Sources

  1. Asokan S, Rathinasamy TKInbamani NMenon TKumar SSEmmadi PRaghuraman RMechanism of oil-pulling therapy - in vitro study. Indian J Dent Res. 2011 Jan-Feb;22(1):34-7.
  2. Sood P, Devi M A, Narang R, V S, Makkar DK. Comparative efficacy of oil pulling and chlorhexidine on oral malodor: a randomized controlled trial. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014 Nov;8(11):ZC18-21.
  3. Asokan S, Kumar RS, Emmadi P, Raghuraman R, Sivakumar N. Effect of oil pulling on halitosis and microorganisms causing halitosis: a randomized controlled pilot trial. J Indian Soc Pedod Prev Dent. 2011 Apr-Jun;29(2):90-4.
  4. Asokan S, Emmadi P, Chamundeswari R. Effect of oil pulling on plaque induced gingivitis: a randomized, controlled, triple-blind study. Indian J Dent Res. 2009 Jan-Mar;20(1):47-51.
  5. Asokan S, Rathan J, Muthu MS, Rathna PV, Emmadi P; Raghuraman; Chamundeswari. Effect of oil pulling on Streptococcus mutans count in plaque and saliva using Dentocult SM Strip mutans test: a randomized, controlled, triple-blind study. J Indian Soc Pedod Prev Dent. 2008 Mar;26(1):12-7.

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