Is the ancient Indian practice of oil pulling a cure-all or snake oil?
Oil pulling, or the practice of swishing oil around your mouth every day, has roots in Ayurvedic medicine, a holistic system of medicine that developed 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. Beginners may only be able to oil pull for five minutes, but the point is to work up to 10 to 20 minutes every morning, or until the viscous oil turns thin and milky white.
Practitioners in India used oil pulling, as well as chewing sticks and herbal tree leaves, to keep their mouths clean and healthy, according to the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. Modern-day advocates of holistic medicine now say that oil pulling can cure everything from a hangover to diabetes to acne.
But the scientifically backed truth, while still compelling, is a lot less exciting. According to the handful of published clinical trials out there, oil pulling is an effective way to kill some forms of mouth bacteria, including bacteria associated with bad breath and gingivitis. And while dental hygienists would never recommend oil pulling as a comprehensive dental hygiene regimen, it can be a good way to supplement recommended practices like tooth brushing, flossing and regular visits to the dentist, says Michelle Hurlbutt, RDH, MSDH, an associate professor of dental hygiene at Loma Linda University in Southern California.
"[Oil pulling] should not be used to treat oral disease such as gum disease or tooth decay," Hurlbutt told The Huffington Post. "It's more of a preventive rinse that could be used adjunctively with your regular mouthcare routine."
Hurlbutt found evidence of its effectiveness after recently completing a small pilot study that showed oil pulling can decrease the bacteria associated with dental cavities. She took a group of 45 healthy young adults who had high levels of mouth bacteria and were not currently taking antibiotics or using antimicrobial toothpaste.
Hurlbutt then instructed them to oil pull daily for two weeks and stop on the third week. The participants were divided into three groups according to what they were swishing around their mouths: sesame oil, which is the oil studied most for oral health; coconut oil, which has gained contemporary fans for its anti-microbial properties; and regular old water, the control group.
She then measured levels of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria associated with a high risk of cavities, throughout the two-week oil pulling period and again after the third week. She found that the sesame oil group experienced a five-fold decrease in the bacteria as compared to the water group, while the coconut oil group experienced a two-fold decrease. But after the daily oil pulling stopped, levels of the bad bacteria began to creep up again.
Hurlbutt currently has no plans to publish the study, which she conducted with students. However, she called the pilot study "promising" and said it makes the case that larger-scale studies are needed to study oil pulling in more depth.
"You'd have to [study] a lot more people to conclusively say that it really, really works," Hurlbutt said. But for people who want to add the practice to their daily routines, Hurlbutt recommends edible, organic oil and a little bit of common sense: Don't oil pull if you're allergic to certain oils or are hypersensitive to strong tastes. And of course, don't swallow the oil -- spit it out in the trash, so that you don't swallow the bacteria you just "pulled," and also so it doesn't clog your sinks or toilets.
But what about all those claims that oil pulling can prevent heart disease or cancer? While there is an established link between oral health and chronic illness, oil pulling's effects on other areas of the body beside the mouth have yet to be proven. In other words, if you take up oil pulling in the hopes that it can prevent heart disease or cancer, you'll just end up with a bad taste in your mouth.