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Oil Pulling: Miracle Mouthwash or Dental Deception?

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It seems as if every new day brings with it another 'miracle remedy', steeped in ancient folklore and promising to rid you of your dependence on vaguely nasty-sounding chemicals. The technique known as oil pulling is often categorised along with the rest of the pseudo-scientific scams that are flooding the modern medical scene—however, oil pulling has some genuine history backing it up.

What is it?

Put simply, oil pulling is the practice of swishing and holding oil in the mouth, usually coconut oil but sometimes sunflower, vegetable or sesame oil. Traditionally, it is part of the ancient school of Hindu medicine known as Ayurveda or Ayurvedic medicine, but with the rise of the internet and the modern revival of alternative medicines it is gaining a widespread global following. The purported benefits of oil pulling are wide-ranging:

  • Cavity prevention
  • Protection against gingivitis and gum disease
  • Tooth whitening
  • Relief of pain caused by temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ)
  • Other varying results have been reported, ranging from improved sleep to hangover relief

How is it supposed to work?

According to traditional belief, this rather unappetising procedure works by correcting imbalances of the body's dosha (a concept similar to the European medical notion of humours) and drawing out toxins through the skin of the mouth.

In purely scientific terms, it seems to depend on the oil that you use. Coconut oil is a pretty amazing substance, with a bunch of confirmed medical uses stemming from its antiseptic properties and the beneficial fatty acids it contains, so swishing it around in your mouth for twenty minutes a day could seemingly only be a good thing. Other edible oils, such as the aforementioned sunflower oil, also have antiseptic properties.

Does it actually work?

There's the rub; evidence of its efficacy is hard to come by. Currently there is a distinct lack of empirical medical study on the practice, but, from the research that has been done, the general consensus is that there's very little harm in trying it.

An Indian triple-blind study conducted in 2009 concluded that swishing with sesame oil resulted in a notable reduction in gingivitis; however, the study was conducted with a small sample size, and, crucially, it was deemed less effective than swishing with a ordinary antibacterial mouthwash. Another study concluded that pulling with more common edible oils, such as olive and linseed oil, produced no appreciable plaque reduction.  

The Ayurvedic system of medicine does not recommend oil pulling be used in the way most modern advocates use it. An oil pulling regimen was traditionally prescribed on an individual basis, with a specific routine assigned to each patient depending on their specific dosha imbalance. Coconut oil is also a new addition to the practice, with sesame oil being the only oil traditionally used. This may be because coconut oil can, in relatively rare cases, provoke painful contact dermatitis.

Despite this, for most people oil pulling will not produce any adverse effects on its own, and there is generally no harm in trying. However, if you do wish to try it, do not use it to replace your regular dental hygiene routine - brushing, mouthwash, flossing, and regular trips to the dentist remain the most effective way of preventing dental disorders.