What to Know Before You Try Oil Pulling

Swishing with oil is the newest (old) way of ridding your mouth of bacteria—if you can bear the brutal 20-minute sessions.

Image courtesy of Trunk Archives

A couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of oil pulling. Now everyone from my brunchmates to Gwyneth Paltrow and Shailene Woodley swear by the ancient Ayurvedic practice of swishing a tablespoon of oil for 20 minutes to "pull" bacteria out of their mouths and, therefore, their bodies. "I'm amazed that the average person brushes their teeth in less than a minute, yet a 3,000-year-old ancient ritual that takes 20 minutes is now the latest rage," says Gerry Curatola, D.D.S., founder of Rejuvenation Dentistry. Yep, I'm amazed too.

But I was still intrigued. After all, it's no news that our mouths are cesspools and that whatever's inside can eventually make its way into your bloodstream. Various studies even link oral bacteria to heart disease. Gross.

As a lover of research, I ran a quick search and found several studies that back up oil pulling's oral-health benefits. For instance, the Indian Journal of Dental Research published a study in which participants who pulled with sesame oil for 10 days dramatically reduced the plaque buildup in their mouths, as well as the number of microorganisms living there. How on earth does it work, you ask? Basically, bacteria have fatty membranes, so they stick to the fat in oil.

I didn't have any sesame oil on me, though, so I opted for olive. I'm not sure how much my gag reflex was triggered by the flavor and how much came from the sheer, insufferable reality of swishing around a mouthful of oil, but I can tell you it was bad. As soon as it hit my mouth, my stomach churned and I started salivating like one of Pavlov's dogs.

On the first try, I made it precisely 5.2 seconds before spitting the oil out. On the second attempt, I lasted longer, but it wasn't any more pleasant. Still, it was satisfying to spit and see that the oil had turned white and milky, which Curatola told me was a sign that it was full of plaque and toxins.

For my next experiment, I decided to invest in some coconut oil, which John Salerno, M.D., founder of the Salerno Center, recommended for its antimicrobial, antibacterial properties. Plus, it's what Gwyneth uses. Enough said.

While the taste was definitely better, the oil was as thick as lard. Warming a dollop on my tongue for a few seconds helped it liquefy. I opted for Carrington Farms cold-pressed Organic Unrefined Extra Virgin Coconut Oil. If I was going to have oil in my mouth for 20 minutes every morning, it better be the good stuff.

After about a week, my morning oil-pulling sessions became dramatically less daunting. And I'm not sure if it was all the oil or the obsessive brushing that followed each pull (I had to de-slime my mouth, after all), but I really did notice that my breath tasted better and my teeth looked a bit whiter, too.

In the end, I can only recommend that you try it for yourself (but heed my mistakes). While it's definitely not a replacement for brushing and flossing, it might just whiten your smile…and strengthen your gag reflex.

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