To a culture obsessed with fresh minty gels and tonics to brighten the smile, the idea of swishing oil around in our mouths seems counterintuitive at best. What Pepsodent girl in her right mind would dull that gleaming grin with vegetable fat?

But at least as far back as 500 B.C., oil pulling – as the practice is called – has been an important part of Indian traditional medicine. In the ancient Ayurvedic text "Charaka Samhita," which dates back to around 500 BC, the practice is called Kavala or Gandusha, and is said to cure some 30 systemic diseases such as headache, migraine, eczema, diabetes and asthma. The premise is that the oil “pulls” toxins out of the body. As well, it has been used extensively for whitening teeth, preventing tooth decay, treating bad breath, bleeding gums, dryness of throat, cracked lips and for strengthening teeth, gums and the jaw.

While science has yet to back up many of the overall health claims, there have been a number of studies suggesting that oil pulling for oral health is beneficial.

One 2009 study found that oil pulling resulted in a reduction in the plaque index, modified gingival scores, and total colony count of aerobic microorganisms in the plaque of adolescents with plaque-induced gingivitis. Another study, this one from 2011, concluded that oil pulling therapy was equally effective as mouthwash containing chlorhexidine for treating halitosis and tackling the organisms associated with halitosis. While a 2008 study found that oil pulling resulted in reducing the Streptococcus mutans (a bacterium that contributes to tooth decay) count in the plaque and saliva samples; the study concluded that oil pulling can be used as “an effective preventive adjunct in maintaining and improving oral health.”

So although science hasn’t proven the practice to be the cure-all as Indian tradition suggests, at the very least it does seem to provide some positive benefits for the mouth.

If you’re interested in trying it, you can use a few different types of oil; most people use sunflower, sesame, or coconut oil. When you wake up, drink a glass of water and place about one tablespoon of oil in your mouth. Swish it around for about five minutes when first starting the practice, and work your way up gradually to 20 minutes, which is the recommended amount of time. Afterwards, spit out the oil the trash, rinse with water, brush your teeth, and who knows, maybe you’ll notice a decline in headaches and eczema along with your healthier teeth.

What is oil pulling?
The traditional Indian oral health practice of swishing oil in the mouth is gaining traction in the West. Here's all you need to know about oil pulling.