Oil pulling is exploding in popularity RN - to ascertain what it *actually* does, I gave the viral trend a go

Before you try out the latest health trend, here’s what the experts think

A close up of a woman's face prior to oil pulling
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You've likely heard of oil pulling or seen it doing the rounds on your TikTok for you page by now. It's no exaggeration to say it's exploded in popularity in recent months, with the #oilpulling hashtag on Instagram. TikTok isn't far behind, with 34,400 posts under the tag.

A traditional practice rooted in Ayurvedic medicine which dates back over 3,000 years, Dr Tim Bradstock-Smith, lead dentist and owner of The London Smile Clinic, shares that it originated in India. "It involves swishing oil - typically sesame or coconut - in the mouth for about fifteen to twenty minutes. The practice was believed to improve oral health and overall well-being by "pulling" out toxins and, in more recent years, it's gained popularity in the West as a natural remedy for maintaining oral hygiene.”

Celebrities including Miranda Kerr, Shailene Woodley, and both Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are reported to be fans of the practice, practising it daily to boost oral hygiene and tooth whiteness.

I'll be honest - I've never enjoyed the somewhat aggressive taste of mouthwash and so have always been on the lookout for alternative ways to improve my dental hygiene, which is why I first gave it a go. Some of you may remember the original oil-pulling craze circa 2018, which is when I first dabbled in the trend myself, but more on this later. Yep - I've been curious about oil pulling for a while.

To hear more from qualified experts on whether oil pulling is scientifically backed and whether they'd personally recommend it, plus how I got on, keep scrolling.

Oil pulling has garnered thousands of posts on social media - so what is it and does it actually work?

What is oil pulling?

Oil pulling essentially involves swishing oil around your mouth for between ten and twenty minutes first thing every morning. After you've done that, you spit it out, kind of like mouthwash, but a touch longer. 

Some research, including this study, suggests that oil pulling can help reduce oral bacteria, gingivitis and plaque when practised alongside your usual brushing and flossing. This particular paper studied participants practicing oil pulling over two weeks, and found that the bacteria streptococcus mutans, which is linked to mouth cavities, was significantly reduced. Another study highlighted that coconut oil pulling was as effective as prescription-graded mouthwash in reducing plaque and gingivitis after 30 days. It also supposedly helps prevent cavities and is often used as a teeth-whitening treatment.

“Some researchers claim that toxins and bacteria accumulating in the body will eventually end up in the mouth," shares Carolina Goncalves, Superintendent Pharmacist at Pharmica, "The process supposedly allows harmful bacteria to escape through the soft tissues and is thought to tackle issues such as dry lips, cavities, gum bleeding, bad breath, and other problems affecting the gums, teeth, and jaw.”

However, despite the above, associations such as the American Dental Association (ADA) remain wary and stress the need for more extensive research.

What is the history of oil pulling?

“Oil pulling was traditionally used to balance the body's doshas”, highlights Beanie Robinson, nutritionist and founder of The Health Space. "This is because it was believed that poor diet and high stress impact the body’s dosha (think: energy) balance, leaving you more vulnerable to illness."

Enter stage right, oil pulling, which was believed "to support the body in maintaining or re-establishing dosha balance.”

What are the benefits of oil pulling?

Now, the all-important question. How much evidence is there to back up the many claims about oil pulling, and has it actually been scientifically proven to boost oral hygiene and health?

Well, according to Dr Sam Jethwa, the leading cosmetic dentist at Bespoke Smile and President-Elect of The British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, "There is some research to suggest that oil pulling can reduce the bacteria in the mouth." That said, he does highlight that the research shows consistency is key - in other words, you need to do it every day to see results.

That said, he personally wouldn't advise doing it solely for oral hygiene purposes. "This is due to the lack of current research proving its efficacy," he shares, stressing that "it should certainly not replace proper brushing, flossing and regular dental checkups.”

Goncalves agrees that scientific research on the benefits of oil pulling is limited. "However, it does seem to help oral health to an extent. One study found that after oil pulling for 40 days, the microbial count in the oral cavity decreased by 20%," she highlights.

So, why might this be? Well, the antifungal properties of certain oils (namely coconut oil) may help eliminate yeast in the oral cavity and counteract the spread of candida, she explains. "Similarly, oil pulling could help alleviate gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) by removing plaque and harmful bacteria from the mouth. It's thought that the action of swishing the oil helps dislodge and remove a significant amount of bacteria and plaque, in turn decreasing inflammation, swelling, and bleeding of the gums, thereby alleviating gingivitis.”

Bottom line: The general consensus among our experts is that the benefits of oil pulling need more research to be conclusively proven, so it’s important to keep this in mind if you plan to try it out.

What should I avoid if I try oil pulling?

First up: it's crucial to avoid swallowing the oil. "This can not only cause an upset stomach but will mean you're swallowing the bacteria you've just spent time swishing around your mouth,” says Dr. Jethwa. 

Also worth noting: some people may experience sore muscles in the jaw or headaches from oil pulling "due to the swishing action and the amount of time spent doing this," he goes on.

Dr. Bradstock-Smith warns of more serious dangers, though, stressing that the potential negatives of oil pulling can go even further than this. "Improper technique or using the wrong type of oil can lead to asphyxiation or lipid pneumonia if oil is inhaled into the lungs," he warns. 

Make sure to keep all of this in mind, if you are still keen to try. 

Lucy Bee Coconut Oil on a shelf

Valeza's favourite coconut oil for oil pulling

(Image credit: Lucy Bee)

Does oil pulling actually work?

“Despite the positive claims, the scientific community remains sceptical about the efficacy of oil pulling,” says Dr. Bradstock-Smith. "While some small-scale studies indicate potential benefits, there is a lack of large, high-quality research to conclusively support these claims. Therefore, oil pulling should not be seen as a replacement for conventional oral hygiene practices such as brushing and flossing, which are backed by extensive research.”

Robinson personally prefers the Ayurvedic practice of tongue scraping. "This removes bacteria and food build up on the tongue, leaving the whole mouth feeling fresh when used with brushing and flossing. It is also a lot more practical than oil pulling, in my opinion," she shares.

From all of our experts, one point is clear: oil pulling doesn’t work on its own. You must maintain a regular routine of teeth brushing, flossing and dental check-ups. Oil pulling will not replace any of these crucial elements of dental hygiene.

What does oil pulling feel like?

I was naturally drawn to oil pulling when I first heard of it. It sounded like a holistic way to keep my mouth extra clean, on top of my usual brushing and flossing. 

That said, from personal experience of trying, I’ll be entirely honest with you: oil pulling is not a pleasant sensation. You’re essentially swishing a thick oil around your mouth for up to 20 minutes. But saying that, after a few days it does become easy to incorporate into your routine. I decided to oil pull while I was in the shower, prior to brushing my teeth, in order to habit stack and ensure I could fit it into my day.

I also started slow, swishing for two minutes and building my tolerance up to five, ten and eventually 20 minutes.  This was rather than going straight in at 20 minutes (go too long, too soon, and you'll probably gag a fair bit - you've been warned). 

As our experts pointed out above, it's also absolutely essential not to swallow the oil. I also found out the hard way not to spit it down the sink, as it can clog your pipes. (My workaround was to flush it down the toilet).

So what about my results? I did notice a slight difference in the whiteness and cleanliness of my teeth with regular use. That said, it's something you really have to stick with to see results.

I first tried oil pulling when it was first all the rage, in 2018. My use of it at the time was quite uninformed and rooted in a hyped-up trend - so would I try it again now, having spoken to dental experts on the matter?

Honestly? I probably would. When I first tried oil pulling, I ensured to maintain good dental hygiene by still brushing, flossing and tongue scraping as normal, and I would of course do the same now. My preferred oil to use was extra virgin coconut oil - it was the most affordable, effective and (somewhat) tasty option for me. You can shop it along with our experts’ oil-pulling picks below.

Shop the best oil pulling products:

Valeza Bakolli
Junior Shopping Editor

Valeza Bakolli is Marie Claire’s Junior Shopping Editor. She previously worked at BuzzFeed, where she honed her skills in all things shopping - from gift guide curation to being first on the scene to feature the latest fashion and beauty drops. She’s made it her mission to encourage people to shop mindfully and with purpose. That’s why she dedicates hours of her time every day to finding the best products online so you don’t have to - from small and sustainable businesses wherever possible, of course.