The centuries-old Ayurvedic practice of oil pulling is back in the spotlight, but what is it and does it even work? Peta Bee finds out

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Ear candling and cupping are among the more curious health trends to have grabbed the limelight in recent years and now there’s another to add to the list: oil pulling, the art of swishing your mouth with sesame or coconut oil.

So popular is the unusual Ayurvedic detox practice, that a growing number of celebrities and health gurus are swapping their regular mouthwash and flossing routines for the ancient ritual that is said to rid the mouth of harmful bacteria by dissolving it, to leave you with a more gleaming smile than you would get from any whitening toothpaste. Those who are hooked on oil pulling claim the perks don’t end there and include glowing skin, reduced headaches, improved digestion and even less fatigue.

So how is it supposed to work? Julie Dent, owner of the chic Clover Mill Ayurvedic spa in Malvern, Worcestershire, is a fan of the swish-and-spit routine and describes it as the ultimate cleanse for the mouth. “The idea is to hold the organic, unrefined oil - processed stuff won't do - in your mouth, swish it around vigorously, then spit it out and gently massage the gums with a finger afterwards.” Do it regularly, says Dent, who is also a trained scientist, and the daily mouthful of oil “absorbs partially digested bits of food and cells that have been shed out of the mouth cavity”, all of which contain the kind of bacteria that can lead to bad oral health and dental problems. Among the celebrity fans of the practice is Divergent actress Shailene, who has raved about the benefits of oil pulling. "It's amazing! It really makes your teeth whiter, because the plaque on your teeth is not water soluble, it's fat-soluble,” she said in an interview recently. “So the lipids have to dissolve in fats, which is why oil works in your mouth. I prefer sesame oil, but they're both good."

And whereas other health fads come and go, this one has been around for centuries. “Ayurvedic practitioners have been prescribing precise morning rituals for several thousand years,” Dent says. “These include cleaning teeth, then chewing sesame seeds to help receding gums, and swishing your mouth with sesame oil too which is believed to strengthen the teeth, gums, and jaw, improves the voice and remove wrinkles from cheeks.”

It sounds too good to be true, but increasingly there is scientific evidence to back up at least some of these claims. A study published in the Indian Journal of Dental Research a few years ago, for instance, measured the effects of oil pulling on oral health in two groups of young men. One group were asked to gargle daily for 10 minutes with a traditional commercial mouthwash while the other gargled daily for 10 minutes with unrefined sesame oil. Results showed a healthy immune response against foreign microbes and supported healthy gum and plaque levels in both groups. Another clinical trial showed how swishing oil around the mouth had a ‘detergent’ or cleansing effect on the oral mucosa or lining of the mouth, boosting oral hygiene.

For beginners, the mere thought of swigging oil can be hard to stomach. Even though the idea is never to swallow it (you don’t want to re-ingest all that nasty bacteria), it takes time to adjust to the sensation of oiliness. Alison Mann, an Ayurvedic practitioner based in Herefordshire, says some people find they can only manage a two to five minute rinse when they start. “There is no right or wrong way,” Mann says. “I think around 10 minutes of oil pulling a day is probably ideal, but the ultimate goal is to do it until the viscous oil turns thin and milky white in your mouth.”

Likewise, there is no right or wrong oil to use. Traditionalists prefer to swirl sesame oil, certainly the most studied in terms of its benefits, but coconut oil has become fashionable lately, partly because of its highly publicised anti-microbial properties and partly because it tastes better. “I switched to coconut oil and find it a more pleasant experience,” Mann says. “It really gets the salivary glands working which is something I never got with sesame oil.” Remember to spit out the oil, then swill your mouth once more with water and that's it. Job done.

Mann says she swirls oil in her mouth while working at the computer or doing her house work. And, she says, she noticed benefits as soon as she started oil pulling daily. “I had a small hole in one of my teeth, but the niggling pain disappeared when I started using the oil,” she says. “It was as if it provided some kind of seal for my tooth.” What does seem to matter is keeping it up. Yo-yo oil pulling is about as beneficial as forgetting to brush your teeth every other day. A small, unpublished pilot study conducted by dental hygiene specialists at Loma Linda University in Southern California compared the effects of mouth-swishing with either sesame oil, coconut oil or regular water on levels of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria associated with a high risk of dental cavities. After two weeks, those using sesame oil experienced a five-fold drop in levels of the mouth bacteria compared to the water group, while the coconut oil group experienced a two-fold decrease. However, once the oil pulling stopped, bacteria levels started to return to pre-trial levels.

It wasn’t enough for the dentists who conducted the trial to recommend it as an alternative to brushing and flossing, but most concede that it can be used as an additional oral hygiene measure. “It’s such a simple and relatively cheap health measure that, for oral hygiene at least, is increasingly steeped in scientific evidence,” says Dent. “You have to develop a taste for it, but once you do there is no turning back.”