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So there’s no doubt you’ve heard of the practice of oil pulling — swishing oil, like sesame oil, in your mouth. The ancient practice is said to beat bad breath, fight cavities, and improve dental health by nixing bad bacteria.
But is there actually scientific evidence behind the practice?
Mentions of oil pulling date back more than 3,000 years as a part of Ayurvedic medicine, one of the world’s oldest medicinal systems. Traditional Indian texts suggest gargling sesame oil — or using it as a mouthwash — as an accompaniment to brushing your teeth and scraping your tongue, Dhaval Dhru MD, chair of the Department of Ayurvedic Science at Bastyr University and the president of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, tells Yahoo Health. The texts regard the practice as a daily and seasonal routine for optimal health, he notes.
“It doesn’t replace brushing or flossing, but many of these practices became accepted because people noticed an ongoing benefit,” he explains.
In recent years, oil pulling has gained popularity — in part because in the 1990s, Ukranian doctor F. Karach presented the benefits of the practice at a conference of bacteriologists and oncologists.
It’s also picked up steam thanks to changed outlooks on medicine. “As a nation, we are becoming more health-conscious and people are looking for natural things, trying to get away from all of the chemicals,” Sally Cram, DDS, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association, tells Yahoo Health.
As for how the process actually works: The term “pulling” comes from swishing, says Cram. (As you swish, you pull the oil through your teeth.) You may have seen it reported that you need swish for 20 to 30 minutes — but that isn’t necessarily the case, says Dhru. Using a teaspoon of an edible oil like sesame oil and swishing for 2 to 5 minutes, then spitting the oil (while keeping up with other oral health practices) is sufficient, he says.
Much of oil pulling’s purported health perks come from anecdotal evidence. Dhru says that patients of his have reported a decrease in inflammation of the mouth after practicing oil pulling post-dental surgery, for example. This could be due to the antioxidant properties of sesame oil, he notes. But although sesamol — a natural compound in sesame oil — has antioxidant properties, its potential effects on oral health haven’t been concretely established in literature.
It’s also believed that the oil itself provides a lining of film over the inside of the cheeks, teeth, and mouth, serving as a protectant and a moisturizer and preventing your mouth and lips from cracking, chapping, or becoming too dry, says Dhru.
“It also stimulates salivary flow so that the salivary glands function a little bit better and the ducts do not get obstructed, preventing any issues related to dryness in the mouth,” he says. Allowing adequate secretion of salivary fluid in the mouth helps to promote oral and dental hygiene, he adds.
Empirical evidence also suggests oil pulling can increase the tone of the muscles in your face; and make the jaw and gums stronger, he says.
Unfortunately, Cram says there aren’t any very reliable scientific studies that have shown that oil pulling does any of the things advocates claim it does.
The research that has been done consists of small studies that are largely inconclusive. One study, for example, of 20 adolescents published in the Journal of Indian Society of Pedodontics and Preventive Dentistry did find that oil pulling was equally as effective as a prescription antibacterial rinse called chlorhexidine for halitosis — or bad breath — and the organisms associated with it. But more recent research published in the International Journal of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry suggests otherwise. The study, while also small, tested the effectiveness of fluoride and herbal mouth rinses as well as oil pulling on 52 children. The results: Oil pulling didn’t provide any extra benefit in reducing bacteria, while the other two methods did.
Due to the lack of reliable scientific evidence on the topic, most dentists have the same position regarding oil pulling, says Cram: While it certainly is not harmful, there’s no compelling evidence that suggests it’s doing any good.
If anything, the swishing activity in general (even if just with water, not oil) may be where any benefits stem from. Swishing can help remove some plaque and bacteria — and in a pinch, is better than nothing, she notes. “Will it actually remove bacteria that cause gum disease? No,” she says. But you could potentially reduce bacteria in the mouth and dislodge gooey, sticky foods that can eventually lead to tooth decay.
The bottom line: You shouldn’t ever replace tried-and-true oral hygiene routines backed by scientific data — brushing twice a day, flossing to remove bacteria, and seeing a dentist twice a year — with habits that are not evidence-based, says Cram.
So if you’re going to try oil pulling, make sure to add the practice into an already effective dental routine and follow Dhru’s guidelines: Opt for sesame oil that is edible, cold-pressed (to ensure the chemicals in the oils aren’t altered), and warm (normally the mouth is warmer than the rest of your skin, so matching that temp makes for a more stimulating environment, Dhru says).
Make sure not to swallow any oil, too. While incredibly rare, there have been a few cases of oil pulling linked to lipoid pneumonia (when lipids — or fats – enter your bronchial tree) due to swallowing, Dhru says.