In my research (read: pinteresting) I stumbled on an odd sounding beauty trend. Oil Pulling. The first post I clicked through was claiming it was a cure for everything from Alzheimer’s to whiter teeth. And that it accomplishes all this by pulling toxins from your body and killing bacteria in your mouth. Color me intrigued. Mostly because they didn’t differentiate between good and bad bacteria, and none of these articles ever mentioned exactly what toxins it was pulling from the body.
Not to mention how exactly do you “pull” an oil….
Turns out the method is quite simple and Oil Pulling is really just a fancy term for swish vegetable oil in your mouth for 20 minutes. Originally a dental practice called “kavala” or “gundusha” stemming historically from Ayurveda, an alternative medicine originating from the Indian sub-continent.
Here is where my skepticism kicked into high gear because modern Ayurvedic medicine is infamous for using a number of treatments that contain high levels of arsenic, lead, and mercury. Not exactly the best source for what is toxic. But as this method only requires taking vegetable oil, I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and press on.
After all, my mouthwash (Rembrandt Whitening if you’re curious) contains castor oil. So I’ve technically been oil pulling without even knowing it. Who knew!
If we look at the exceedingly long list of things oil pulling purports to cure, there’s really two major questions to answer: Does swishing oil in your mouth pull out toxins(whatever they are)? And does oil have antibacterial properties?
To the first question of pulling toxins, the answer is not physically possible. Or as Dr. Sharath Asokan put it in his paper titled Effect of oil pulling on plaque induced gingivitis: A randomized, controlled, triple-blind study:
It is claimed that the swishing activates enzymes and draws toxins out of the blood. The bottom line is that oil pulling actually cannot pull toxins out of the blood as claimed because the oral mucosa does not act as a semi-permeable membrane to allow toxins to pass through.
To the question of antibacterial properties:
The answer is not quite. I couldn’t find any evidence for oil pulling having direct antimicrobial properties. In fact in all the studies, oil pulling was orders of magnitude less effective than chlorhexidine, fluoride, or herbal rinses at improving oral and gum health.
However, while there was no evidence for oil pulling decreasing total bacterial loads, there was some evidence of oil pulling having a small effect on the number of bacteria present in plaque.
I already regret that pun….
Your mouth is host to a number of microbes that are normally harmless. But if you don’t brush and floss regularly some species like Streptococcus mutans and other anaerobes will bind together and form biofilms on your teeth, resulting in plaque buildup. This is the first phase of most dental diseases like cavities, gingivitis, and periodontitis.
With this in mind, we start to get some clarity on how swishing oil might be acting on your oral bacteria. A little bit of research and I found a study that showed that swishing the oil did result in emulsification and saponification i.e. a little bit turned into soap. Which seems to support that the swished oil is likely preventing a number of bacteria from adhering together or binding to your teeth. Which could explain some of the whitening or better breath claims, but statistically it’s not enough to prevent more serious diseases.
This is where Oil Pulling would get the “Harmless but likely ineffective for anything but bad breath” stamp. Except for one paper in which two patients developed Lipoid Pneumonia as a result of oil pulling. So instead, it gets a giant “You’d be better off swishing water” stamp.
Note to any readers: Don’t be afraid to do the research and find out for yourself. Just because you read something on the internet, even if it’s from a person with an MD, or from a blogger you like, always verify. Especially if the claims seem too good to be true or they are overly vague about how it works.
- Comparative efficacy of oil pulling and chlorhexidine on oral malodor: a randomized controlled trial.
- Mechanism of oil-pulling therapy –In vitro study [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21525674]
- Comparative Evaluation of the Effects of Fluoride Mouthrinse, Herbal Mouthrinse and Oil Pulling on the Caries Activity and Streptococcus mutansCount using Oratest and Dentocult SM Strip Mutans Kit [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4562043/]
- Effect of oil pulling on plaque induced gingivitis: A randomized, controlled, triple-blind study. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19336860]
- Exogenous lipoid pneumonia caused by repeated sesame oil pulling: a report of two cases. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26518258]