What has been popular in Ayurveda for centuries is finally making its way into the western mainstream, and it’s characterized by swishing oil around your mouth and “pulling” it back and forth between your teeth to draw the toxins out of your body. This practice has been getting a lot of press lately, with a band of loyal followers who swear by its ability to make their teeth brighter, their headaches go away, the toxins leave their body, and even bolder claims such as to cure cancer.

A daily cleanse

"The results of the studies have found chlorohexidine and oil to be largely comparable in terms of reducing plaque and bacteria in the mouth, with the major difference being that chlorohexidine is a chemical-based toxin, and oil is a natural remedy."

In Ayurvedic medicine, oil pulling is part of a daily cleansing routine that supports total body purification. A small amount of oil is swished around the mouth and pulled through the teeth several times, then spat out anywhere from 3 to 20 minutes later. It is important not to accidentally swallow the oil, as it will be chock-full of the toxins and bacteria that it has drawn out of your mouth and body.

The western adaptation and the popular media has insisted on pulling for 15-20 minutes to achieve the desired effect, but Dr. Virender Sodhi, who specializes in Ayurvedic medicine at the Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Medical Clinic, maintains that oil pulling for even 3-5 minutes will produce noticeable results. In terms of its medical benefits, he remarks, “It does help your digestive system, and it does help your oral hygiene, which is the gateway to a lot of other diseases.”

A holistic approach

The oral-systemic connection has been a focus in the healthcare industry lately, with new research appearing every day linking poor oral health to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and more. Thus, it’s natural that as a society we are looking to expand our oral care routine with holistic and unique methods such as oil pulling. In order to explore the hard facts, several studies have been done by the Meenakshi Ammal Dental College in Chennai, India, comparing oil pulling with swishing with chlorohexidine, an ingredient often used in traditional mouthwash.

The results of the studies have found chlorohexidine and oil to be largely comparable in terms of reducing plaque and bacteria in the mouth, with the major difference being that chlorohexidine is a chemical-based toxin, and oil is a natural remedy.

While sesame oil is traditionally recommended, coconut oil has become the favorite for its pleasant taste. Dr. Sodhi confirms that this, along with any other natural oil such as olive or sunflower, will act as a safe and effective method for oil pulling, which will then “keep the bad bacteria in check and the good bacteria flourishing.” The bacteria in your mouth that causes bad breath and periodontal disease shies away from oil, but the good bacteria will bask in it, creating a healthy and balanced environment.

One thing that’s essential to note as it is the benchmark of the Ayurvedic tradition is that we are all different, and should take an individualistic approach to our healthcare. This is not to say that oil pulling is not for everyone—recent research has confirmed its value as part of a daily care routine—but if we are going to adopt Ayurvedic practices, we should respect its bottom line, which is to pay attention to your specific disposition and needs when making choices about your body.