On Trend: Oil Pulling

I may be a little late on reporting the “latest craze” with this one, but here we are. Oil pulling. When I first heard the term, I couldn’t believe it has nothing to do with gas companies or oil rigs. Essentially, oil pulling involves taking a tablespoon of oil (I later learned that coconut oil was the more glamorous option), and swishing it around the mouth for twenty minutes to reap supposed oral health benefits. Most people opt to take up oil pulling in hopes to replace flossing. My thought? I didn’t even know people could hate flossing THAT much.

Oil pulling - The Debtist

Where did oil pulling come from?

Oil pulling has actually been around for centuries. Previously known as “kavala” or “gundusha”, this ancient dental technique has its roots from India. It is believed that the oil is capable of binding to toxins and pulling them out from the body. It was primarily used to improve oral health but has been applied to other aspects of health as well. However, the oil needs to be in contact for long periods of time in order for it to have an effect, hence the twenty minutes of swishing.

Supposed benefits

The internet is teeming with a number of supposed health benefits to oil pulling. It seems that there are many advocates for this holistic trend spanning social media websites. Below is a list of benefits that I found people were claiming this new trend has to offer.

  • whiter teeth
  • cavity/gingivitis prevention
  • better breath
  • stronger teeth and gums
  • less jaw pain, sleep problems, and sinus issues
  • alleviation of headaches, hangovers and skin issues

My Personal Perspective

No offense, but my first non-filtered reaction was “uhm, ew?!” Just the thought of swishing a tablespoon (why so much?!) of coconut oil around made me shudder. Coconut oil at room temperature is SOLID, and it takes a while for the oil to melt in your mouth due to body heat. Taste and texture definitely makes or breaks the practice, and while they say you can use other plant-based, cold-pressed, organic oils such as sunflower oil, sesame oil and olive oil, I do agree that coconut seems to be the most … manageable? Don’t get me wrong, I love those oils in my salads and I’ve been known to make a famous chocolate chip cookie recipe using coconut oil, but letting them sit in my mouth is just not the same thing. Of course, curiosity kills the cat, and I did try it out for myself. Verdict? As predicted, I was not able to cope. I could hardly keep the oil in my mouth for longer than a few seconds! Forget about twenty minutes. I couldn’t help but wonder, is flossing SO bad that one needs to spend twenty minutes of their day oil pulling instead of flossing for two?! I know, I know, I’m biased. But STILL. I say, more power to the people who are able to do oil pulling successfully once, let alone three to four times a week. Plus, if it were all true and the oils do bind to microbes, hypothetically after twenty minutes of swishing, pushing and pulling that oil into all the gingival crevices of your mouth, you’ve essentially got a wad of bacteria. And still swishing…which to me, seems a bit gross. And that’s coming from a DENTIST!

Oil pulling - The Debtist

My Professional Opinion

There is little formal trial data that supports any of the health benefits claimed by oil pulling. While it may be true that oil pulling pulls toxins out of the body, we must remember that causes of cavities and gingival disease involve acid produced by bacteria, not toxins. Therefore, the pulling of toxins does not necessarily have anything to do with cavity prevention. Some may argue that vitamin E resides in coconut oil which have antibacterial properties, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Vitamin E does not select for the bad bacteria and may actually be doing as much damage if it is also removing the good bacteria. Our oral biome consists of both the good and bad, and if we take away good bacteria, we will give the bad bacteria an opportunity to thrive. Because Vitamin E isn’t proven to be selective for removing only the bad bacteria, I don’t think this argument suffices for supporting that oil pulling reduces cavities and gingival disease. Lastly, some people claim that oil pulling is as effective as chlorhexidine in treating bad breath, but may I suggest that swishing WATER around for twenty minutes would result in better breath too…

I am not here to completely shut down the idea of oil pulling. But I am here to say that there is not enough scientific evidence to support this ancient dental technique. There are studies, but most have been found to have flaws in their methods. I would still consider oil pulling as a possible supplement to brushing and flossing, but not a complete replacement. As of now, the American Dental Association has deemed insufficient clinical research to support oil pulling as a stand alone preventative treatment that works. Sorry, but yes this means that you still need to floss. Yes, you can roll your eyes at me.

Giving Oil Pulling a Try? Things You Should Know:

If you are going to try oil pulling, may I recommend the following?

  • Still floss! Just as water flossers cannot fully replace flossing, any oil you swish in your mouth cannot get in between tooth contacts!
  • Swish gently. Twenty minutes is a very long time and vigorous swishing can result in jaw pain and tension. Headaches have been reported as a side effect of oil pulling, which can be due to the stresses placed on the temporal muscles. Headaches are also common in clenchers and grinders who undergo similar long periods of muscle tension. Take it easy, take it slow.
  • Do not swallow the oil. If the point is to bind to toxins, we do not want to ingest all those toxins you’ve collected by swishing the oil around.
  • Once you are finished, spit the oil into the trash, not the sink. Oils can clog up the sink’s drain pipes, and explaining to the plumber why you’ve got clogged pipes will surely be interesting.
  • Brush as you normally would after a session of oil pulling. I would feel much better knowing that you’ve removed all the oil after the swishing, just in case. Plus, I am sure brushing will help to remove that slimy, oily feel and taste that I just couldn’t take. I guarantee your cup of coffee would taste much better if it wasn’t chasing coconut oil from a morning’s session of oil pulling, wouldn’t you agree?

On Trends: Charcoal Toothpaste

The Dental Series was created in collaboration with Bogobrush in an attempt to make dental health care not only important, but COOL, too! In it, we answer common questions and address current topics in the dental field. When Bogobrush is not helping spread the word about oral healthcare, they act as a source for ethically made, sustainable toothbrushes, with a one-for-one give-back program catering low-income communities that may not have access to something as simple as a toothbrush.


Charcoal sure is getting quite the attention these days. It seems that this granulated, activated, ashy celebrity has stolen the spotlight. Instagram posts are covered with picture-worthy activated charcoal-containing foods, such as black scoops of ice-cream atop waffle cones, and seeded black hamburger buns on either side of a beef patty. This ‘coconut ash’ has also been praised to bind toxic drugs and chemicals in the body due to its negative charge, thus pulling out toxins before the stomach can digest them. (Someone has yet to start an all-charcoal diet.) For similar reasons, bits of charcoal are also being integrated into beauty products in the effort to bind dirt and oils, and I’ve seen humans who look like panda bears, mid-exfoliation. Pretty cute. And don’t think I didn’t consider for a moment the use of charcoal sticks in lieu of a water filtration system. In a crazed effort to eliminate plastic use completely while not being open to drinking unfiltered water, I myself fell down a charcoal-obsessed rabbit hole internet search. Drop a stick of charcoal in a jug of water, wait a few hours, and voila! Perfectly delicious drinking water advertised. While I have nothing at all to say about any of these aforementioned things, except maybe to note that charcoal ice cream temporarily stains your teeth the same color as the pint, I do have a few things to say when it comes to this much celebrated charcoal entering our toothpaste.

Why Put Charcoal in Toothpaste?

Have you seen videos of people brushing their teeth with black globs of sticky stuff and wondered to yourself, “Why put charcoal in toothpaste?” Especially after divulging the fact that a first date may be complicated by stained teeth as a result of trying charcoal ice cream with a potential future life partner. Along the same lines of the previous train of thought that activated charcoal can bind to things due to its micro-porous nature, it seems that some are of the mind that it can also bind plaque and bacteria and tartar. There is the added benefit of whiter teeth, as well. So, why don’t we dig deeper about these two topics?

Does Charcoal Like Bacteria?

Not any more than we do! Activated charcoal is porous in nature. The thinking behind removing bacteria with activated charcoal is that plaque and micro-organisms will be caught in the pores of the charcoal particles, and thus be removed. Possible, but it seems that it does this at a similar rate as regular old toothpaste would. So, no, there is no special binding relationship between the new celeb and our bacteria.

Does Charcoal Toothpaste Detoxify?

There isn’t much to say about the detoxifying nature of charcoal toothpaste that so many people claim. The gums and teeth are not at all similar to your liver and kidneys, which take on the job of clearing your body of toxins. Because of this, the charcoal is not exactly detoxifying your body of anything. Of the same token, for those who are using charcoal toothpaste and are concerned about the charcoal affecting your current medications, rest assured that the charcoal is not in contact with the medications in your digestive tract and therefore has no effect. Unless, off course, you are swallowing the toothpaste rather than spitting it out.

Does Charcoal Actually Make Teeth Whiter?

The simple answer is, “Yes it does”. Bizarre, that you can brush with black to make them white! Charcoal is effective in removing surface stains, which isn’t exactly equated to whitening teeth. Surface stains are extrinsic staining on the teeth due to a coffee drinking habit, or the occasional red wine indulgence. These stains reside on the enamel layer which happens to also be the outermost layer of your tooth. Typically, other ‘whitening’ toothpastes remove these stains as well.

However, your teeth can also have intrinsic stains, either caused by trauma, certain medications, weak enamel, or excess fluoride use. These intrinsic stains can not be removed by toothpaste, with or without charcoal, primarily because the toothpaste will never reach these stains. Whitening of intrinsic staining can only occur from bleaching treatments (whether that’s in-office or over-the-counter) that penetrate past the enamel. But if you wish to use charcoal toothpaste to help reduce stains due to a cold brew habit, then charcoal toothpaste will suffice.

Should We Be Wary of Charcoal Toothpaste?

Unfortunately, charcoal is abrasive. Part of what makes it so good at removing extrinsic stains is the fact that it is rough and can rub off discolorations that are stuck in the pores of your teeth (teeth are porous too!). However, the concern is that charcoal acts like sand paper. Anyone who has consumed or brushed with charcoal will know the grainy feeling it leaves in your mouth. Like sandpaper, repetitive use of the stuff can abrade parts of the outer enamel layer. The enamel is the strongest part of our bodies (stronger than bone!) and our teeth need it as protection. Removal of the enamel layer will weaken the tooth and cause hypersensitivity. You know those ‘Zings’ you feel after a tooth whitening session? Well imagine a permanent version of that, if the enamel is removed. Yikes! Ironically, too, the removal of enamel makes the teeth even more prone to staining for future years to come. Enamel is definitely something we want to protect. If you are planning on using charcoal toothpaste, then consider brushing lightly and gently.

Also, before you declutter your regular toothpaste, may I suggest alternating your charcoal toothpaste with the regular one? Who knows? Like all trends, charcoal coolness may fade, and you may be reaching for your trusty familiar toothpaste brand, once again. At the very least, the alternation will help reduce abrasion to your beautiful, pearly whites. Plus, most charcoal toothpastes do not have fluoride, a good protector of teeth. Fluoride is what helps fight dental decay, and as much as we want white teeth, I am sure you would agree that we want to KEEP our teeth even more. Since charcoal is a recent celebrity, it is too early to tell what charcoal is really about. Better to wait until the tabloids (and research) unearth its true qualities before we fall head over heels for this new star.