What Is Oil Pulling - And Should You Be Doing It?

oil pulling
oil pulling
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Gwyneth Paltrow may have swapped mouthwash for coconut oil, but should you be following suit? It's time to separate fact from fiction: read on to find out exactly what oil pulling is, what it can and can't do, and whether you should be doing it...

What is oil pulling?

Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic technique that dates back 3,000 years. Also known as 'kavala' or 'gundusha', it involves swilling a tablespoon of oil around your mouth for 15-20 minutes in order to 'pull' bacteria and toxins from the mouth. Devotees claim that the method improves both dental hygiene and overall health, citing whiter, stronger teeth, healthier gums, sweeter breath, cavity prevention, more radiant skin, better sleep, fewer headaches and an end to jaw pain and sinus problems.

How does oil pulling work?

Advocates believe that oil can draw microscopic bacteria (which could otherwise encourage tooth decay, gum disease and other illnesses) from crevices, pores and tubules within the mouth and teeth like a magnet. "Most microorganisms inhabiting the mouth consist of a single cell," says dentist Jessica Emery. "Cells are covered with a lipid, fatty membrane, which is the cell's skin. When these cells come into contact with oil, another fat, they naturally adhere to each other."

Dr Sandra Moldovan believes the benefits are down to the friction created by the action of oil pulling, as opposed to the properties of the oil itself. Either way, oil pulling has been found to reduce plaque and oral bacteria, with studies indicating that it is at least as effective as mouthwash.

But could its benefits extend beyond your mouth? "Yes - everything is connected," Moldovan asserts. "When there is a healthier mouth, there is less inflammation in the body, and overall then everything can heal. The skin is better, you're in a better mood, you have more energy. If you have all this infection in the mouth, your body is constantly trying to fight this bacteria to keep it from entering your body," she explains, reminding us that poor oral health has been linked with issues as diverse as heart attack, stroke, pneumonia, diabetes, erectile dysfunction and low birth weight. "Any type of bacteria or inflammation in our mouths can compromise the immune system, making it work overtime to clean everything up," agrees wellness coach Yvette Rose. "When our immune system isn't able to keep up, these toxins contribute to excess fat and disease."

Which oil should I use?

You can use any plant-based oil, including coconut, olive, avocado, black cumin seed, canola, cedar nut or walnut oils, but oil pulling with coconut oil is the most popular choice.

Many find the taste of coconut oil most palatable. It also has an extremely high lauric acid content, which inhibits the Streptococcus mutans bacteria known to cause tooth decay and sinusitis, and linked with pneumonia and meningitis. It also has anti-fungal, antioxidant and tooth-strengthening properties, thanks to its monolaurin, vitamin E and vitamin D content.

Coconut and olive oils are also thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, whilst there is some concern that sesame and sunflower oils may encourage inflammation.

How do I do it?

Many people recommend oil pulling first thing in the morning, since decreased saliva production allows harmful bacteria to grow overnight, but you can do it at any time of day. Short on time? Some suggest doing it in the shower, or even during your commute!

You should gradually build up to swishing a tablespoon of oil around your mouth for 15-20 minutes, 3-5 times a week, but try easing yourself in with a 5 minute session using a smaller amount of oil.

Go gently - you do need to push and pull the oil through your mouth in order to free those pesky microbes, but "a gentle swishing, pushing and sucking" action is all that's required. "Don't work too hard," Emery advises. If your jaw starts to ache, ease off!

The volume of oil will almost double over the course of 20 minutes, as it draws in saliva and bacteria. Avoid swallowing, or those nasties will go straight back into your system. Spit the oil into the bin, not down the sink, as this could cause blockages (particularly if you use coconut oil, which solidifies at room temperature).

Rinse your mouth thoroughly with water (some recommend warm salted water) before brushing and flossing as usual. If you've already brushed, you should still rinse your mouth thoroughly before eating or drinking.

Are there any risks?

Adverse effects are rare, but you should test the oil you plan to use in the crease of your elbow to guard against contact dermatitis.

Lipoid pneumonia, a rare disease caused by the inhalation of fatty substances, has been associated with oil pulling in a small number of cases. It usually occurs only when oil is mistakenly swallowed and goes "down the wrong pipe" on multiple occasions. Some advise that young children and those with severe respiratory issues or difficulties in swallowing should avoid oil pulling for this reason.

Oil pulling can be safely substituted for mouthwash, but not for thorough brushing or professional dental treatment, dentists warn. Oil can penetrate about 1mm into the gums, whilst serious infections sit up to 5mm deep, so it should not be treated as an appropriate strategy for tackling pre-existing gum disease.