Instead of groggily putting toothpaste on toothbrush and vigorously scrubbing your teeth first thing in the morning, imagine starting your day by swishing a mouthful of oil around your teeth and gums—ideally for 20 minutes. Sounds bizarre? It’s actually not—oil-pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice of maintaining oral hygiene and has been an established daily habit in India among many communities for centuries. It has certainly been around longer than toothbrush and toothpaste—the two things we consider indispensable to our daily routine and the two things that seemingly stand between us and utter anarchy (the reason your mother always reminds you to pack your toothbrush).
But for centuries, oil-pulling was the preferred method to clean your teeth and mouth first thing in the morning. It involves two kinds of procedures: Gandusha, or holding approximately 1 tablespoon of oil (typically coconut or sesame oil) in your mouth for 15-20 minutes and then spitting it out, and Kavala or filling the mouth with a relatively smaller quantity of oil, swishing it briskly inside the oral cavity and spitting it out after 2 to 3 minutes. Some do both, and some prefer one to the other.
The practice is backed by solid scientific reasoning: The microorganisms that cause a variety of dental problems, from tooth infections to gingivitis (bleeding gums) and bad breath are caused by single-cell bacteria covered with a lipid (fat) membrane. When they come into contact with oil, they adhere to each other—so the oil essentially “pulls” the germs out.
While “pulling oil”, the oil used for cleansing the mouth, has usually been your regular coconut or sesame oil, Ayurvedic practitioners do prescribe variations of these with different herbal infusions. And now, the big oral hygiene companies have got into the game, selling pulling oil in the mass market.
Colgate recently launched pulling oil as a product under its Vedshakti range of herbal oral hygiene products. The oil has a blend of 5 oils—sesame, clove, eucalyptus, holy basil, and lemon, the company claims, with sesame oil forming the base. While talking about the benefits of oil pulling, the company however says that it is not a substitute for brushing and flossing and should be practised along with regular dental care practices.
Dabur has also launched its own pulling oil under its Dabur Red sub-brand, calling the oil ‘Ayurvedic mouthwash’ to perhaps make it sound more palatable to urban consumers.The company says it contains coconut oil, which prevents gingivitis and plaque; sesame oil, which strengthens teeth and gums; tulsi to prevent bad breath; clove, which helps reduce toothache; cinnamon oil, which gives relief to sore throat; and thyme and mint for preventing tooth decay. “Besides its oral care benefits, the therapy is also known to provide relief from health problems with improved health of sinuses, improved hormonal balance and detoxification. It helps strengthen teeth and gums, and kills 99.9 % germs, providing complete oral care,” says Harkawal Singh, head of marketing (oral care division) at Dabur India.
Apart from these FMCG biggies, even smaller hipster companies seem to have gotten into the act. Cureveda, a new-age nutrition startup, offers its oil blend of pulling oil, which is made of “formulated coconut oil containing 50% lauric acid, pearl powder, clove oil, and peppermint oil.” Lauric acid is a saturated fat found in many vegetable fats, particularly in coconut and palm kernel oils, and has anti-microbial properties.
In southern India, one brand got onto the oil-pulling bandwagon fairly early. “Back in the mid-2000s, the Tamil Nadu-based gingelly oil brand Idhayam unleashed an extensive multimedia campaign for something relatively unknown till then—oil pulling,” writes digital marketing expert and communications consultant Karthik Srinivasan on his blog beastoftraal.com, which contains commentary on social media, PR, marketing, advertising and branding. “Idhayam’s oil pulling related campaign’s media bombardment was astoundingly relentless – TV ads, print ads, radio ads, outdoor billboards… every conceivable media vehicle was utilized to popularize a fairly unknown/lesser-known practice.”
In the north, no brand had tried to own oil pulling as a concept the way Idhayam did in the south of India, he concludes— while Patanjali could have been an ideal candidate, they did not go down that road. “So, it is fairly surprising to see a multinational like Colgate, and a brand like Dabur, throw their hat into the oil pulling concept co-ownership long after Idhayam asserted its brand in context,” writes Srinivasan.
The growing popularity of oil pulling is in keeping with the general reawakening of interest in Ayurvedic treatments and practices. Whether it replaces our obsession with the toothbrush as a civilisational tool remains to be seen.