Every morning for 10 days, Jennifer Beckinsale woke up, poured a tablespoon of coconut oil in her mouth and swooshed. For 20 minutes.
"I had been hearing about oil pulling everywhere, and I was curious, so I figured why not," says Beckinsale, 30, a Chicago-area blogger who runs The Allergista. "I thought I might as well see if any of these benefits are actually real."
Oil pulling, an ancient Ayurvedic folk practice, dates back 3,000 to 5,000 years to traditional Indian medical remedies. Advocates claim swishing any type of oil in your mouth every day will whiten your teeth, reduce bacteria, strengthen your gums and jaw, improve your skin, clear your sinuses, prevent ?bad breath and even protect against heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.
Anecdotally, it works -- at least to some extent. Beckinsale says her teeth looked a little whiter around day five of oil pulling, and the eczema on her left foot began to clear up. "I don't know if that's directly related, but it's happened," she says. And on social sites, oil pullers rave that the ritual is everything from "dope" to "transforming."
"People are saying that their breath is better, their gums don't bleed anymore and their teeth look a little whiter," says Jeffrey Dalin, a dentist based in St. Louis. "I haven't had the guts to do it, but I think it's something at least worth looking into."
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Limited research, mostly dating back to 2008 and 2009, suggests oil pulling -- particularly with coconut oil -- can stop plaque from forming. But evidence is lacking, and experts caution that you shouldn't expect any greater benefits. "There's absolutely no data whatsoever that shows diabetes can be treated or prevented, or that heart disease can be," says Lyla Blake-Gumbs, a physician with the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine. "It's not a new practice -- it's been done thousands of years -- but there were no real records kept. So I can't go to any objective, well-run clinical trials to look into the other claims."
Oil pulling likely won't cause any adverse effects -- so long as you don't swallow the oil. Doing so could cause diarrhea or an upset stomach, Blake-Gumbs says. And the swooshing itself isn't going to taste good. Oil, be it olive, sesame or coconut, is often difficult to tolerate -- and some types are solid at room temperature, until they begin to melt in your mouth. "I had one patient tell me she did it with sesame oil first, and she couldn't hold it in her mouth because it was too strong a flavor," Blake-Gumbs says. "Then she tried olive oil, and that was more agreeable to her."
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Even if you can stomach the oil, 20 minutes is a long time. Beckinsale -- who says coconut oil "tastes like a tablespoon of non-animal fat in your mouth" -- liked doing it while she was in the shower every morning. That sometimes trickled into the time she spent doing her hair and makeup. She recommends a short trial run before committing to a daily oil pulling routine, so you know what you're in for. "The first time was kind of a doozy," she says. "It grossed me out."
Beckinsale recalls problems only a fellow oil puller could relate to, like needing to sneeze but knowing she couldn't open her mouth. And then there's the issue of where to dispose the oil. Your sink is out, because the oil will harden and clog your pipes. Beckinsale spit hers into a disposable cup and threw it away, but didn't like how wasteful that felt. Still, she says she would try oil pulling again -- though she's happy for a break in the wake of her 10-day challenge.
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The bottom line, Dalin says, is that oil pulling is relatively simple and inexpensive -- coconut oil runs around $10 or less-- and it's not invasive. But there's still no solid evidence that it actually works, and experts agree that if you're concerned about your teeth, it's best to brush at least twice a day for two minutes each time. "Brushing and flossing is still the tried-and-true way to go," Dalin says. "We know that works. But keep an open mind about this -- people are swearing by it. Hopefully some researchers will take it on and see if there's really something to it."