The phrase “oil pulling” probably makes you think of a Texas wildcatter putting up derricks and extracting black gold from the barren earth. But to some alternative medicine advocates, it means something else entirely: an ancient method of improving oral health and treating diseases of the mouth that will whiten your teeth, strengthen your gums, cut through plaque and most importantly, detoxify the body, relieve pain and even play a role in curing deadly illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
Obviously, those are the kind of lofty claims that skeptics salivate over debunking. But people who practice oil pulling absolutely swear by its benefits – and unlike so much of what we poke holes in, this could actually have some.
As you can read on the many, many websites devoted to it, oil pulling (or oil swishing) is quite simple to do. Just put unrefined oil, such as coconut or sunflower, in your mouth, swish it around for a while, making sure to coat your teeth and gums. The oil kills bacteria, viruses and fungi, strengthens your teeth, promotes general immune system balance and, of course, rids you of toxins by “pulling” them out of your mouth. Once you’ve finished your swishing, you hork the swished oil into a garbage can, rinse with salt water (sea salt, of course), brush as normal, and go about your day healthier and toxin-free. You do this each morning, or more often if you want. Good health ensues!
Or does it?
The idea of rinsing one’s mouth with oil is thought to have originated in the ancient Ayurvedic Indian natural medicine text Charaka Samhita, where “oil gargling” was described as a natural remedy for oral diseases. It was unknown in the western world until the 1990’s, when, as the story goes, a doctor named F. Karach gave a presentation to the All-Ukrainian Association for Oncology and Bacteriology on how he used it to cure his own blood cancer. Incidentally, I found no biographical information on Dr. Karach, and I’m not convinced he’s even a real person.
Regardless, it didn’t break into mainstream alternative circles until a naturopath and nutritionist named Bruce Fife started evangelizing it in his 2008 book Oil Pulling Therapy: Detoxifying and Healing the Body Through Oral Cleansing. Fife’s breathless descriptions of the incredible things that swishing with coconut oil could do, done as part of his role as president of the Coconut Research Center (which is apparently a thing), worked wonders.
Oil pulling took off like a granola rocket in the natural cures crowd. There are now countless websites and blogs devoted to the benefits of this ancient Indian treatment, full of before and after pictures, tips and flowery testimonials from people who say it’s drastically improved their health. Oil pulling is said to treat chronic pain, insomnia, cavities, allergies, thrombosis, diabetes, asthma, bad breath, gingivitis, digestive issues, meningitis, low energy, heart disease, kidney disease, “toxic bodily waste,” PMS, leukemia and even AIDS. Oil pulling, it would seem, is truly a life-changing medical miracle.
If the glowing anecdotes from people who “don’t know how it works, but it just does” and endless list of vanquished diseases seem familiar, it’s because they’re the same as the ones thrown out there by users of pretty much every miracle food product, from Kangen water to juice cleanses. And while oil pulling seems to have a lot in common with the rest of the woo food aisle, it probably is a safer and less dubious natural treatment than many of the others marketed as cure-alls. It has little risk involved, and it might even have some actual benefits.
For one thing, it’s done as part of a good oral hygiene regimen, something everyone needs to do anyway. It has less potential for physical harm, given that it doesn’t actually involve ingesting or applying any goofy substances. And it doesn’t come with the massive financial risk that MLM schemes do, though high quality coconut oil can get fairly expensive. Additionally, the process of swishing, sucking and rolling the oil around massages gum tissue, which could improve blood flow in the gums. And the fatty acids in in coconut and olive oil can lead to healthier skin, though that’s probably a side effect of swallowing small amounts of the oil.
Oil pulling’s positive effects are based entirely on anecdote and not at all on clinical research – because there’s been very little. Pubmed lists six clinical studies related to oil pulling, all performed in India, and their quality and results seem all over the map. Some do indicate mild improvement in gum health, comparable to mouthwash use. But they’re not well blinded, use very small sample sizes and involve oil pulling only as part of a proper oral hygiene regimen. So it’s impossible to tell what’s causing said improvement.
But what we do know is that oil pulling doesn’t draw toxins out of your body. This is because detoxification is a myth, other than what your body already does with the kidneys and liver. Just as Kinoki foot pads don’t pull toxins out of the feet, herbal cleanses don’t pull toxins out of your gut, and cupping doesn’t pull toxins out of your sweat glands, oil pulling doesn’t pull toxins out of the mouth. This is just basic, though incredibly popular, pseudoscience.
All of oil pulling’s other supposed miracle benefits, such as “activating enzymes” or “balancing the immune system” or “easing brain fog” or “supporting normal kidney function” or the endless list of diseases it cures, are all either implausible, untestable or just sciencey sounding word salad. The people pushing these miracles give no thought to how or why coconut oil swished in the mouth would do any of this – because they don’t have to.
Oil pullers say “on the contrary, the oil is clear when you put it in your mouth and cloudy when you spit it out! Toxins!” The oil IS cloudy – because it’s been reacting with saliva, bacteria and air for 20 minutes. And what kind of therapy leaves a person with a mouthful of toxic glop that will harm them if swallowed? No doctor on earth would prescribe that.
Another reason to be skeptical of oil pulling is that nobody can seem to agree on how to actually do it. While the basic technique is always the same, some people (including Bruce Fife) say you can only get the full effect with coconut oil. But others say you can use sesame, sunflower or olive oil, all of which are very different substances. Some people say you can swish one tablespoon, others say two or even three. Some say 10 minutes of swishing is enough, other say it only works if you do it for 20. I couldn’t even find a consistent definition of why it’s called “pulling.” Some websites reference the toxins being “pulled” from your body, others say it refers to pulling the oil through your teeth.
The point of pointing out these discrepancies is this: the difference between a proven medical treatment and an unproven natural one is that the proven medical treatment has exact recommendations for use and dosages derived through copious research, while the natural one is basically whatever you want it to be for however long you want it to be.
So where does that leave us? With an old folk remedy that probably won’t harm you, might have some slight benefit and is in no way a miracle cure. If you want to pull oil and think it’s working wonders for you, that’s great. But you’d probably be better off rinsing with high-quality mouthwash and saving the oil for cooking a healthy meal.