“Oil pulling” is an ancient Ayurvedic practice from India that has recently become popular in the US as a means of improving health of the oral cavity, especially gum health. The practice involves using an oil, usually coconut, and swishing it around the mouth and between the teeth for about 20 minutes. Advocates of the practice say that it greatly reduces gingivitis and oral bacteria levels.
I have been asked many times if oil pulling really does help with oral health. Some recent studies have shown that oil pulling does indeed improve oral health and reduces plaque and bacterial accumulation in the mouth. At the same time, studies show that rinsing with other substances for 20 minutes will do the same; some things even to a greater degree than oil.
The conclusion is generally that the act of rinsing for 20 minutes and mechanically removing bacteria and plaque is more responsible for the improvement in oral health than the oil itself. Multiple studies specifically compare the effects of oil to chlorhexidine, a prescription oral rinse used for gum inflammation. The studies generally show that chlorhexidine is more effective than oil in reducing gingivitis and plaque, but there is still a marked improvement when using oil over not rinsing at all.
Using oil to rinse also has fewer side effects than something like chlorhexidine, which can stain teeth and lead to poor taste if used habitually. It is generally not advised to use something like chlorhexidine long term, while there is no downside in using oil long term.
Other mouth rinses would also have a benefit when used in the same manner as oil pulling. I generally advise if a mouth rinse is going to be used, that it be alcohol-free. Alcohol-based mouth rinses can dry out the tissue and non-alcohol rinses work just as well. Also, alcohol is a carcinogen, and daily bathing oral tissue in it could possibly have long-term side effects. My favorite rinse is Closys, but ACT and Listerine both make non-alcohol versions of their rinses. If a rinse is to be used, make sure the label specifically says non-alcohol or alcohol-free.
In the end, oil pulling certainly has a benefit in improving oral health and reducing plaque. Although using other rinses have similar or better effects, oil has less side effects and can be a good option for someone who does not want to use a chemical-based rinse and is looking for something more natural.
I would love if all my patients made the effort to rinse daily whether with oil, or some other non-alcohol rinse. Doing so leads to a much cleaner and healthier mouth.
Dr. Nick is with Palm Desert Smiles and can be reached at (760) 568.3602.