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'Oil Pulling': Does It Really Whiten Your Teeth?

Dental smile

Can swishing oil in your mouth for 20 minutes a day really whiten your teeth, sweeten your breath, improve your skin and get rid of your migraines? More to the point, is it even possible to swish oil in your mouth for that long without gagging?

We're talking about an ancient Indian folk remedy called oil pulling that suddenly has found new life, thanks to popular actresses trying it and social media sites such as  Pinterest helping spread the word.

Oil pulling has been touted for thousands of years as a natural way to maintain oral hygiene, including whitening teeth. It has roots in Ayurveda, a system of natural healing that says that swishing oil can help "pull" away the bacteria that cause gum disease and bad breath. More recently, enthusiasts swear it helps with acne, headaches and diabetes.

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The goal is for the oil to eventually thin and turn white after 20 minutes of swishing, at which point you spit it out. Realistically, beginners to the practice will need to build up to that length of time.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow told  E! online she's been doing it with coconut oil after "I read about it on the Internet." Shailene Woodley, star of the new movie Divergent, told the popular beauty blog Into the Gloss that it was "a natural way to heal." She prefers sesame oil.

The Washington Post talked to Kasia Kines, a Baltimore nutritionist specializing in holistic medicine, who said her Polish mother taught her to do it with sunflower oil. She often recommends oil pulling to her clients, calling it "very, very practical," although she admitted that it's not for everyone.

So is there any science behind this fad? The evidence, so far, is skimpy. A 2008 study found that it did reduce bacteria, and Michelle Hurlbutt, an associate professor of dental hygiene at the Loma Linda University School of Dentistry in California, told the Huffington Post "it can be a good way to supplement recommended practices like tooth brushing, flossing and regular visits to the dentist."

She warned, however, that it "should not be used to treat oral disease such as gum disease or tooth decay." She called it "more of a preventive rinse."

Hurlbutt told the Huffington Post she had done a small, unpublished pilot study on oil pulling with 45 students, dividing them into three groups who swished with either coconut oil, sesame oil or water for two weeks. Compared with the water group, the sesame oil group had a five-fold decrease in bacteria after two weeks, and the coconut oil group had a two-fold decrease, she reported.

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Bottom line: Oil pulling probably can't hurt (if you can stand doing it), and it might have some benefits.

If you want to try it, here's Hurlbutt's practical advice: Use an edible, organic, mild-tasting oil, and avoid any you're allergic to. Don't swallow it (or you'll be swallowing all the bacteria you just removed), and don't spit it out in the sink or toilet, where it can clog the drain. Spit it out in the trash.


Photo: laflor/iStock


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