Everyone is talking about ‘oil pulling.’ But does this health practice actually work?

It's been touted as everything from a natural teeth whitener to a cure for acne. Thousands of videos on YouTube espouse the benefits of oil pulling -- an Ayurvedic technique that involves swishing an oil in your mouth, much like mouthwash, and spitting it out.

Shailene Woodley, actress and oil puller. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Shailene Woodley, actress and oil puller. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

There don't seem to be any good medical studies on pulling but that hasn't reduced interest in the technique.

Shailene Woodley, who stars in the highly-anticipated film 'Divergent,' has copped to trying it. She explained the unconventional remedy to Into the Gloss, a popular beauty blog:

I love a natural way to heal. You can do something called ‘oil pulling’ where you swish coconut or sesame oil in your mouth when you wake up and spit it out. It’s amazing! It really makes your teeth whiter...I prefer sesame oil, but they’re both good.

For Francheska Medina, a natural-living blogger based in New York, the benefits of oil pulling go beyond oral health. In December, Medina posted an oil pulling video to her YouTube channel, HeyFranHey, which recently hit 100,000 subscribers. In the video, Medina rattles off a list of ailments -- migraines, allergies, sinus pressure, cavities and more -- before explaining the method, which she calls "an awesome way to jump start your body."

In a phone interview, Medina said she began pulling oil six years ago after she experienced a series of kidney-related health issues. She does not have a medical background, but began studying nutrition and natural remedies when she found treatments her doctors suggested to be ineffective or too expensive. She still does it first thing every morning.

"I started doing [oil pulling] and within the first two weeks, I could feel my body getting stronger," said Medina, who also incorporated juicing and detox teas into her health regimen. "I knew that it was definitely going to be something that could help me heal myself."

If you search for "oil pulling," on the American Dental Association's Web site, you won't find much. As The Atlantic notes, the organization addresses alternative methods in a much more general way, with a policy statement on "unconventional dentistry."

Sally J. Cram, a D.C.-based periodontist and a consumer adviser for the ADA, said she hasn't seen any studies on oil pulling during her 28 years in dentistry. Oil pulling is often cited as a natural breath freshener, and while Cram says the fragrance of certain oils may help, "there's nothing in those oils that is anti-bacterial."

Kasia Kines, a licensed nutritionist whose Baltimore-based practice is built around holistic nutrition says she often recommends oil pulling to clients as part of her 30- day detox program, which includes a focus on plant-based whole foods, such as whole grains, vegetables and seeds. She doesn't do it herself, however, because her plant-based diet keeps her healthy, she said.

Kines, a native of Poland, said her mother taught her the technique using sunflower oil. Because the oil is relatively inexpensive, Kines says, "it's very, very practical," though she admits it's not for everyone.

Those who recommend the technique usually suggest swishing the oil for 10-15 minutes. "For many Americans, it's not very palatable," Kines said.

Cram, the periodontist, cautioned that bad breath or tooth sensitivity can point to other, sometimes serious, issues, so it's important to identify the root cause before trying any at-home remedies.

"The first place I would start, before trying anything like that, would be to go to your dentist and get an exam," she said.

Bethonie Butler is a producer and a reporter on The Post’s engagement team. She oversees online comments and has also contributed to The Style Blog and She The People.
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