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Supermodel Elle Macpherson swears by 'oil pulling' for health. Does it work?

Fans of the ancient practice believe it offers all sorts of benefits. Experts aren't so sure.
Coconut oil
/ Source: TODAY

Add supermodel Elle Macpherson to the list of fans of “oil pulling” — the practice of swishing oil in the mouth in the belief it promotes good health.

"I use coconut oil. In the mornings I stake a swig of organic coconut oil, swirl it in my mouth for two or five minutes, sometimes ten minutes. That has done wonders for my teeth and gums,” Macpherson told TODAY’s Megyn Kelly last week.

“You can help rid your body of toxins through your mouth.”

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The practice is a traditional folk remedy that’s been around for centuries in India and southern Asia, the American Dental Association notes. Devotees swish a tablespoon of sesame, olive, sunflower or coconut oil in their mouth for several minutes — sometimes up to 20 minutes — then spit it out, convinced this improves dental health and overall well-being.

But does oil pulling really have any benefits?

Many experts are skeptical.

“Currently, there are no reliable scientific studies to show that oil pulling reduces cavities, whitens teeth or improves oral health and well-being,” the ADA said in its official position. Because of this, the ADA does not recommend oil pulling as a dental hygiene practice.

But if you want to try it in addition to properly brushing and flossing your teeth, it likely won’t hurt, dentists said.

“It’s a good addition to dentistry,” Dr. Zack Zaibak, a dentist in suburban Chicago, told TODAY. “There’s not much testing on this, but I haven’t seen any negativity, from a dentist’s perspective.”

Oil pulling may improve oral health very minimally or not at all, and doing it carries little or no risk, explained Dr. Zuri Barniv, a dentist based in Sunnyvale, California, who writes the “Straight Up Doc” blog where he answers patients’ common questions about oral health and dental procedures.

When it comes to claims the practice pulls “toxins” out of the body, Barniv couldn’t find evidence of these “mystery” poisons in a person’s mouth. Besides, the body detoxes just fine on its own with the help of the liver, lungs, kidneys, skin and digestive track, noted NBC News health and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom.

"Frankly, I think using a Water Pik for a minute every day would be much more effective"

Simply removing bacteria from your teeth, tongue and cheeks couldn’t be described as “detoxification,” Barniv pointed out. Plus, many bacteria in the body are beneficial.

“I really can’t find any evidence that oil pulling does anything more than dislodge food particles and plaque, things that would happen if you vigorously rinsed with anything for 20 minutes,” Barniv wrote last month in his analysis of oil pulling.

“Frankly, I think using a Water Pik for a minute every day would be much more effective… [but] by all means, you can do oil pulling and it may afford you a minor benefit.”

The downsides are that quality oil is expensive and swishing with it is “disgusting,” Barniv noted.

Indeed, the sensation of having a mouthful of oil that contains bacteria and bits of food — and swishing with it for several minutes — can be nauseating.

A description of oil pulling in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine advised that it should be done before brushing teeth, before breakfast and on an empty stomach.

Never swallow the oil and don’t spit it into the sink when you're done because it can clog pipes. Rather, spit it into a trash can or on a paper towel. Rinse your mouth with warm water afterwards and then brush your teeth, the authors advised. Children should not do oil pulling.

Bottom line: For good dental health, brush twice a day for two minutes with fluoride toothpaste, floss once a day, and don’t use tobacco, the ADA recommends. Adding oil pulling to that routine likely won't cause harm, but don't expect much in terms of benefits.

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