It’s being touted as a way to freshen breath, combat gingivitis and keep your mouth soft and supple. And although this East Indian oral hygiene practice dates back thousands of years, oil pulling is the latest trend to hit current oral hygiene practices. 

Oil pulling is typically done before you eat breakfast or brush your teeth. First, take a teaspoon of coconut or sesame oil and put it in your mouth. The next step is to swish if around forcefully through your teeth for up to 20 minutes before spitting it out.

Several small published studies done in India have looked at this practice. One indicated it could be as effective as using mouthwash to reduce the strain of Streptococcus mutans that causes tooth decay. Another study suggested it may help combat gingivitis.

Dr. Leslie Laing is a prosthodontist and an assistant professor in the faculty of dentistry at the University of Toronto. 
"I do it every morning. I’ve noticed that after I do this, the lining of my mouth is incredibly soft and smooth," she said. "I’ve also noticed that even my teeth look a little brighter after doing this."

Dr. Leslie Laing

Dr. Leslie Laing is researching if oil pulling can help dry mouth symptoms in patients with Sjogren's Syndrome. (University of Toronto)

Laing is also actively doing research on the benefits of oil pulling.   

"My primary research is with an autoimmune disorder called Sjogren’s Syndrome and the people who are affected by this get dry eyes and dry mouth," she explained. "So as a dentist I’m always on the lookout for something that can moisturize the mouth."

She asked some of her patients to volunteer to try oil pulling every day for three weeks. But before they got started, she gathered some data from them. 

"I did take some saliva samples from them, as well as plaque samples and tongue scraping samples. And then I took those and grew them on culture media … specific for bacteria that were associated with causing cavities, as well as yeast," she said. "Because when you have a dry mouth you tend to get an overgrowth of fungus called candida."

After three weeks, she repeated the plaque and saliva samples and tongue scrapings. For the small sample size of a dozen patients in her initial test, she found the number of bacteria present either stayed the same or decreased. "One of the latest ones I just tried [it] was a hundred-fold less, so that’s very significant," she said.

Those early findings were enough to motivate Laing to continue with a larger study of patients with dry mouth symptoms, as well as a control group. This time, she's included subjects with symptoms brought on by prescription medication and some people with head and neck cancer who don’t have working saliva glands. She hopes to include people with AIDS as well.
 
Dr. Euan Swan is manager of dental programs at the Canadian Dental Association in Ottawa. He’s read the existing published reports on oil pulling but says the CDA doesn’t have an official position on the practice.

"We sense oil pulling won’t do any harm, we’re not convinced there are any particular benefits to it."

Swan says oil pulling requires a large investment of time, but adds using it as a strategy to loosen material around your teeth may work. "And [with] the oil … the effect on the dental biofilm may be that it’s easier to remove later with a toothbrush and floss."

Laing’s ongoing study is looking at oil pulling’s application for gingivitis and plaque buildup. And although she hasn't yet published any results, she’s seeing some positive indicators.  

"The Sjogren’s syndrome patients, the ones that have such a dry mouth that they have difficulty speaking [and] difficulty swallowing, they found this is a vast improvement," she said.

"And quite often their gums are very susceptible to bleeding after they floss and they’ve told me that …after they floss now, their gums don’t bleed."