Coconut Oil Is Not Dental Care
If oil pulling is doing anything for your oral health, it's likely from the mechanical motion of swishing.
Russ Rohde/Getty Images
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Tubs of coconut oil aren’t exactly a strange sight in medicine cabinets, as the gloppy stuff is often used for hair and skin care. But in some bathrooms, the oil may be closer to the toothbrush and used as part of an oral health routine in a trendy wellness practice called oil pulling.
Oil pulling involves gently swishing a spoonful of the stuff around your mouth for anywhere from one to 20 minutes, sometimes a few times a day. It comes from Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional medical system in India, and was popularized in the United States by a nutritionist who wrote a book on the practice. Proponents of oil pulling in the US say that it can do everything from disinfecting the mouth, to whitening teeth, to detoxifying the body. The claims, though, aren’t grounded in much medical evidence.
“As for whether it works? There’s really no scientific information,” says Nancy Burkhart, an associate professor in the College of Dentistry at Texas A&M University.
There are very few studies on oil pulling, but some have shown positive benefits. One small, two-week study of 20 adolescent boys, for example, found that oil pulling reduced the amount of bacteria in plaque and saliva samples to the same degree as an antiseptic (aka germ-thwarting) mouthwash—good news, because reducing bacteria can help prevent gum disease.
But there isn’t nearly enough information to say anything conclusive about the practice. A review of the existing research on oil pulling, published in 2016 in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, found that there was some evidence that the practice could help with oral hygiene. However, it only identified five randomized controlled studies on oil pulling, which included a total of only 160 people.
Because there’s so little evidence available, the American Dental Association (ADA) does not recommend oil pulling.
“We need more randomized and controlled studies of a longer duration to help us understand if it does hold up like an antiseptic mouth rinse,” says JoAnn Gurenlian, graduate program director in the department of dental hygiene at Idaho State University. “Right now, it’s not that it does or doesn’t work, we just don’t know.”
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Gurenlian thinks that if oil pulling is doing anything, it’s likely working in the same way as a non-antiseptic mouth rinse: the mechanical motion of swishing rinses out the mouth, potentially dislodging bacteria and plaque, and the washes can freshen breath. These are different from antiseptic mouthwashes, which include ingredients like chlorhexidine to actively kill bad oral bacteria, but can still be a valuable addition to your mouth-cleaning regimen.
People might be interested in oil pulling as a way to mix up their dental routine, which can get a bit, well, routine, Gurenlian says.
“I never want to discourage someone if this is going to get them excited and working towards their oral health,” she says, as long as it’s not harmful—and she doesn’t think oil pulling would pose a problem, as long as it wasn’t used as a replacement for brushing.
Though there have been some cases of people developing lipid pneumonia from accidentally inhaling oil, including a case reported in Japan, that’s a rare occurrence. Other than that, Gurenlian says, she doesn’t see any downsides. “Except to the pipes in your sink if you spit it into one.” (Proponents recommend spitting it into a trash can, not your sink or toilet.)
There are bigger problems to worry about in oral health, Burkhart says, like food choices and tobacco use. “If [oil pulling is] making the person feel better about their mouth, I don’t have a problem,” she says.
Gurenlian agrees. “If you feel good, that’s great. If you think your mouth is fresher, that’s great,” she says. What patients want from their oral health routine might not be strict adherence to the best the scientific literature has to offer—they’re just interested in what makes them feel good. “We have to strike a balance.”
However, she says, feeling better doesn’t mean you develop fewer cavities. She takes issue with claims that oil pulling can do anything more than that. “There are some really fantastical claims. People say it’s curing their [jaw pain]—really? I’m not so sure,” she says. The same goes for claims that the practice can remove toxins from the body or whiten teeth, she says.
Some bloggers or advocates of the practice make more of the evidence than they should. “In an effort to make this seem like a good thing they don’t present the actual facts,” Gurenlian says. “Don’t say, ‘there are a lot of great [studies] that say how great this is.’ Actually, the studies don’t say that it’s great.”
In addition, Burkhart notes, oil pulling can’t replace tried-and-true methods for cleaning teeth—they’re still an important part of oral care. “Brushing after [oil pulling], using a toothpaste and a brush, is still recommended,” she says. The American Dental Association recommends brushing twice a day for two minutes with a fluoride toothpaste—oil pulling, if you choose to do it, would need to be just an addition to these steps, not a replacement.
If people feel strongly about the practice, Gurenlian says it should be added to their normal routine. “People are telling me they don’t have time to brush and floss, but they have time to do this, which takes much longer,” she says. “So I look at someone who says, ‘this is motivating me to take better care of myself,’ and putting them on a path of wellness. I hope they also brush better.”
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