The surprising origins* of oil pulling
*updated September 2021
Oil pulling may be an effective way to clean your teeth and gums very thoroughly by swishing a spoonful of oil around your mouth so that it absorbs bacteria and toxins, then spitting it out.
It’s believed to be an Ayurvedic practice for detoxification that can help you to have clearer skin as well as a cleaner mouth.
However, according to Dr Claudia Welch there are two traditional Ayurvedic practices which involve oil in the mouth, but neither have much in common with oil pulling as we know it today.
Kavala Graha involves using a small amount of edible oil for gargling, not pulling or swishing as in the contemporary oil pulling practice.
Gandusha recommends holding a mouthful of edible oil without moving git around the mouth before spitting it out. There are four kinds of oil mixtures used for gandusha which are tailored to particular purposes.
These practices could be incorporated into an extensive Ayurvedic daily routine known as Dinacharya दिनचर्या . Dinacharya is a health-promoting series of recommendations based on natural daily cycles intended to help to balance your doshas दोषः (bodily humors).
Dinacharya practices can apply to the times that you wake up and go to sleep, elimination, massage, exercise, bathing, meditation and prayer, meals, study, work, relaxation and of course, hygiene which is where oil pulling comes in.
Ayurveda has been practiced in India for two thousand years as documented in classical Ayurveda texts including Charaka Samhita, and Sushruta Samhita, which tells of the original medical knowledge transmitted from the gods to sages, and then to human physicians (and make no mention of oil pulling).
Ayurveda medicine flourished in India and throughout South East Asia for centuries and may have had some influence on Chinese, Arabic and European doctors until the emergence of evidence-based modern medicine.
Ayurvedic medicine was often brutally suppressed under British colonial rule. There were instances where Ayurvedic doctors had their fingers amputated to prevent them from continuing to treat patients.
When India regained independence in the 1940s, Ayurvedic medicine began to be practiced more openly and today is part of the nationalist, cultural renaissance in India, though it continues to be condemned by the mainstream medical establishment.
Ayurveda has been adapted for Western consumption since the 1970s but Dr Welch argues that oil pulling is not part of authentic Ayurvedic training.
The origins of oil pulling as we know it can be traced to 1990s and a mysterious Russian Dr. F Karach. Today you’ll see oil pulling recommended on social media by all sorts of health influencers, sometimes with reference to Ayurvedic origins and other times shared with no context.
Despite these ambiguous origins, and only minimal scientific research, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and that the contemporary practice of oil pulling may help improve the oral health of some people.
However, oil pulling is not safe for everyone and should always be practiced with caution.
Oil pulling can cause pneumonia
Researchers have found an association between oil pulling and the rare disease of lipoid pneumonia.
Lipoid pneumonia is caused by the inhalation of any oily or greasy substance into the lungs where it coats the surface of the lungs and inhibits breathing. It’s more commonly associated with putting butter or oil (eg Vicks Vaporub) in the nostrils, with fire eating, even with spending too much time around burning candles!
Children are particularly at risk due to lack of muscle control to keep from inhaling particles of liquified oil.
Although lipoid pneumonia is rare, I would also caution that oil pulling may not be safe for adults who:
- have a history of asthma or any other respitory condition
- have persistant coughs or colds
- smoke or vape
- have a problem tooth or gum on the lung meridian (teeth #4, 5, 12, 13, 18, 19, 30, 31)
- frequently oil pull for extended periods
What is oil pulling doing to your fillings?
Avoid oil pulling with amalgam fillings
Amalgam fillings are the metal fillings that look black after a few years in your mouth. They are made from a mixture of metals including mercury. Mercury is highly toxic and there is a risk that oil pulling can destabilize the mercury in amalgam fillings, to cause symptoms of mercury toxicity in your body.
There has been no definitive research to prove whether or not this is a real risk. (There has been almost no scientific research into any aspect of complementary or alternative oral health. It’s not where research funding goes.)
However, it is a theoretical risk. Given that oil pulling works because it draws out toxins present in the mouth and mercury is a toxin known to leach out of amalgam fillings as they age. As a precautionary
Mercury is known to cause neurological and cardiovascular problems, collagen diseases, immune system problems and allergies. I have seen a number of clients with amalgam fillings who have tried oil pulling and have symptoms of mercury toxicity including autoimmune conditions, viral infections, chronic fatigue and allergies.
I strongly recommend that oil pulling should not be
practiced if you have amalgam fillings in place.
If you choose to take the risk of increasing your exposure to mercury by oil pulling please educate yourself about the symptoms of mercury toxicity and stop immediately if you notice those symptoms.
fillings could be destablilized
There is some anecdotal evidence that oil pulling may also destabilize composite or ceramic fillings (the ones that look white in your mouth) particularly if the fillings are very new and haven’t had time to bond properly with
Don’t enjoy oil pulling? Don’t do it!
Oil pulling is very fashionable at the moment, because of increasingly high expectations for white teeth. As more people start to recognize the long-term risks and ineffectiveness of conventional teeth whitening (with bleach) they are looking for natural strategies.
However only some people find it an effective teeth whitener (it might help with some stain removal but true whiteness comes from the health of the dentin inside the tooth).
Oil pulling may be a more reliable way for many people to relieve tooth sensitivity and may even help with short term management of infections and abscesses.
Advocates of oil pulling sometimes talk about it as though it’s an essential part of every oral health habit. I often hear from people who feel pressured into oil pulling even though they find it unbearable.
For example, having a gag reflex that is very easily triggered can make oil pulling feel very uncomfortable. Some people find that keeping a quantity of oil in your mouth for an extended period time can feel nauseating.
There is absolutely no reason to force yourself to oil pull if you don’t like it, or don’t want to, or feel that its just not the right thing for you.
Oil pulling may be helpful for some people, but it’s not essential to your oral health. There are many other things you can do to keep your mouth clean and healthy.
Ultimately, diet plays a far more significant role in your oral health than any approach to hygiene.
So, now that you’ve assessed your level of risk and understand the role oil pulling can play in oral
Oil pulling for beginners
Take it slowly
If you are new to oil pulling start with a teaspoon or less of oil and swish for 2-3 minutes. Build up your tolerance gradually to find your ‘sweet spot’ which may, or may not, be the ‘tablespoon of oil for 20 minutes’ version that is commonly recommended.
Oil pulling involves swishing vigorously but don’t feel like you have to push the oil around with your tongue to get it
Never swallow oil after pulling. Spit it out into the trash, onto paper or outside, but not down a drain. I have cleaned a shower drain clogged up by someone else’s oil and it is very unpleasant.
Hello! I'm Meliors Simms, the Holistic Tooth Fairy.
As a natural oral health coach I have worked with hundreds of clients worldwide to avoid unnecessary dental procedures and have better experiences with the necessary ones. (Find out about my coaching services here).
After a diverse career (from research to counselling to arts) and a lifetime of terrible teeth, I stumbled on an Alt Oral approach which prevented what would have been my 7th root canal.
That inspired years of independent research and experimentation, eventually resulting in my uniquely holistic approach to oral health.
My new book The Secret Lives of Teeth is a comprehensive guide to healing teeth and gums with metaphysical perspective. Read a sample here for free.