Oil Pulling Facts | Good Health or Good Hype?

April 1, 2014

oil pulling reasearch nurse gail Oil Pulling Facts | Good Health or Good Hype?

Where’s the clinical data? What does the literature say?

Oil pulling is getting a lot of buzz as a cure-all health remedy and it seems that every pseudo-wellness blogger has something to say about it.  Granted, there is a well established connection between poor oral health and disease but does oil pulling make a difference?  The information circulating about this trend is only half accurate and I want to set the record straight. 

Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice in which one swishes edible oil (traditionally sesame but sunflower, olive, and coconut are also used) in the mouth for 15-20 minutes before spitting it out.  It is still used today in developing countries where access to oral care and products is limited.  Health-fad-loving Americans  are embracing oil pulling as an alternative to commercial mouthwash, toothpaste, and teeth whiteners.

But where is the science behind all the hype?  There are only 3 low-level peer-reviewed research studies  published on the benefits of oil pulling and they are all highly flawed.  Conducted in India by the same researcher, S. A. Asokan, each study included only 20 Indian adolescent boys (30 subjects are required to be statistically significant) with gingivitis (inflamed gums) who had never used mouthwash before.  There was no benign control group in any of the studies to evaluate the results of swishing with water for 20 minutes compared to oil or chlorhexidine mouthwash.  It is possible that swishing anything for 20 minutes could have a positive effect.

On the flip side, there are just as many weak studies to counter the benefits of oil pulling.  One study (using 8 subject samples) shows that oil doesn’t kill cavity causing bacteria in tooth enamel and a professional paper with only one adult female subject reports that oil pulling had failed to alleviate her gingivitis.  A letter published in February in the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease reports recurrent lipoid pneumonia associated with the practice of oil pulling.  This is caused by accidentally inhaling the oil while holding it in the mouth–imagine coughing, sneezing or laughing with a mouth full of emulsified oil.

In the most recent published study by Asokan, he himself writes, “The exact mechanism of action of oil pulling therapy is still not clear and we are currently carrying out research in this area.”  So when someone claims to know how oil-pulling works, you can call BS.  We don’t know if bacteria are suffocated by the oil (most bacteria in the mouth require oxygen to live) or if the bacterium’s fat-soluble membranes are being broken or if the bacteria are drawn to the oil and expelled whole.

Other misleading claims on the internet suggest using only coconut oil for its unique anti-bacterial properties.  All oil has anti-bacterial properties–that is why you can leave it in the cabinet and not in the refrigerator.  Another claim states you must spit out the oil and never swallow it because it is “toxic waste.”  Seriously?  Nothing that grows in our mouths is toxic waste or we would all be dead.  Swallowing the oil might have a mild laxative effect but the bacteria will disintegrate in stomach acid.

Claims that oil pulling speeds up metabolism are also silly.  Oil pulling speeds up metabolism just as much as chewing gum because anything in the mouth triggers the body to begin the digestive process.  Also, if someone claims that oil pulling detoxifies the blood, ask them what they think the liver and kidneys do.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that oil pulling is a waste of time or that you shouldn’t do it.  I’m sharing the facts surrounding the hype so you won’t sound like a doofus when you talk about it with your friends.  There is no strong empirical evidence, only anecdotal stories, that oil pulling has marked systemic health benefits.  And unfortunately, no amount of oil pulling is a cure for stupid.



[This article was originally posted in my health column as "The Science Behind Oil Pulling--Good Health Or Good Hype?" on 4/1/13 at NYULocal.com.  To read all of my NYULocal.com articles, please visit their site.]

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Comments (6)

  1. Great info Nurse Gail. I have been wondering what all the hype was about with oil pulling. I am kinda surprised people are buying into this fad. Would love to hear about your research or views on the e-cigarettes fad. So many people think they are 100% safe.

    • Thanks Erica! It’s funny how people don’t want to be duped but then they talk about things in a way that make it obvious they haven’t done their homework. Granted not everyone knows how to dissect and analyze research but we, as a community, have to be skeptical about who is providing health information (why are fashion school graphic designers blogging about health and wellness and WHY are people reading it???).

      I have tried to talk to people about e-cigs and they just don’t want to hear it. E-cigs are simply another nicotine delivery system and it is the nicotine that does most of the damage. People who use e-cigs are continuing to put themselves at risk. A man presented me with what he thought was research stating e-cigs were safe. I took one look at it and told him that it was a nice unpublished pseudo-meta analysis of e-cig second hand smoke and within the paper (if he had read it), it states that manufacturers of e-juice are not regulated (meaning they can add a ton of nicotine without disclosing it) and there are chemicals hidden in the e-juice labeled “flavor” or “fragrance” that could be any number of known carcinogens.

      I may carve out the time to write more about e-cigs because their use poses long term health risks which are deadly. Thank you again for reading and commenting!

  2. Gail,
    A major WHOO-HOO! And thank you. I’ve been seeing, reading and hearing all about this (as you said all over the blogosphere). I am super glad to read an article by a nurse (I know and trust) and the research studies you share here. I’ve been scared to try it, but wanted to in order to see what it does. I guess it can’t do much harm nor good. You know what? To me it seems to point to the fact that some things work for some and others work for others and everyone’s health is a unique journey of personal well-being. Just because some fad diet helps my girlfriend down the street lose weight, doesn’t mean I’m dropping 40 pounds. Thank you! Great post,

    • Elizabeth, thank you for reading and commenting. I tried oil pulling for a week before I wrote the post. I think I was actually swishing oil in my mouth as I was writing about it. It definitely does something that makes my teeth sparkle but people have been talking about it like it is a miracle drug. It may very well be, but if someone thinks it will cure their dental cavity, or skin eczema, or sinus infection instead of going to the dentist or doctor then we have a problem. Take care!

  3. Thank-you so much for providing this information. A few weeks back a local news broadcast featured a piece on this and noted several “moments of misinformation”. I think I just might contact them with more accurate information.

    • Thanks for reading my post! My goal in writing the post was not to determine if oil pulling was good or bad but rather to clarify some misconceptions about the published research. For good or bad, we live in a society where decisions are made based on research and unfortunately, the average joe can’t make heads or tails out of it. Memberships to data bases are expensive which keeps the information out of the hands of the people. It is no wonder that there is misinformation out there.

      I suggested that the NYU School of Dentistry conduct some research so that eventually the American Dental Association (among others) can recommend it as a treatment (based on the outcomes). Understanding the research (or lack of, in this case) and presenting it to established medical bodies is one way to give holistic treatments the credibility that they deserve. When old school medicine gets on board with holistic practices, then society as a whole benefits.

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