What Is Oil Pulling? A Guide to This Ayurvedic Practice
There are a couple of ways to pull oil (more on this shortly). Generally, though, the practice involves putting a tablespoon (for adults) or a teaspoon (for children 5 years and older) of sunflower, sesame, or coconut oil in the mouth before breakfast, and swishing or holding the oil in the mouth for 3 to 20 minutes. When pulling is complete, the oil is spit out and the mouth is rinsed with warm water.
While there are various theories on how oil pulling works, the exact mechanism is still unclear. Some theorize that the oil has a soap-like effect and cleans the teeth and gums, that the oil reduces plaque buildup and makes it harder for bacteria to stick, and that it may have antioxidant or antibiotic properties.
In addition, the action of swishing oil around your mouth may activate digestion, and when the oil mixes with digestive enzymes in your saliva, it may become a potentially powerful antiviral and antibacterial agent, says John Douillard, a doctor of chiropractic and a certified Ayurvedic practitioner in Niwot, Colorado. Coconut oil, for example, contains lauric acid, which reacts with saliva to form a soap-like substance that contains antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
It’s also believed that the oil acts as a protective coating, preventing plaque and bacteria from adhering to the teeth and gums.
On the other hand, David Chen, DDS, a general and cosmetic dentist in New York City, explains oil pulling in terms of its effect on the pH of the mouth. “Oral bacteria thrive in an acidic environment, but become muted in neutral and basic environments,” he says. “This is especially true when the pH of the mouth drops below 5.5.” (According to the pH scale, anything greater than 7 is basic, whereas anything less than 7 is acidic.)
When your mouth’s pH drops below 5.5 and becomes more acidic — as when you eat — the enamel on your teeth starts to demineralize (the process of removing minerals) and cavities begin forming, according to a research paper. Your mouth’s pH rises when you brush your teeth or rinse your mouth, which gives your teeth the chance for repair via the remineralization process.
Oil pulling may be another way to bring your mouth’s pH back to neutral or basic levels, Dr. Chen says. Coconut oil, for example, has a pH of 7 to 8, he notes. Rinsing with it may theoretically cause the bacteria to become less active, “thus providing your body a chance to repair damage from acidic insults.”
Oil pulling is a relatively safe practice to do at home. But if you need advice about using oil pulling to address a specific concern, you might work with an Ayurvedic practitioner.
To date, Ayurvedic practitioners aren’t licensed in the United States, and there’s no national standard for training or certification, notes Johns Hopkins Medicine. National organizations such as the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) accredit Ayurvedic institutions and programs in the United States to ensure quality training and practice. You can find an Ayurvedic practitioner through their directory or search their list of accredited programs.
If you’re concerned about your oral health or physical health, seek professional advice from a doctor or dentist.