Does oil pulling work? Claims vs. facts behind the holistic health craze


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Funny cat pictures are not the only things that go viral on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Medical advice supported by anecdotal “evidence” abounds. And there are plenty of armchair doctors who, even when they have the best of intentions, make hefty claims that are simply not backed up by science.

In case you haven’t already heard of oil pulling, it’s an ancient Ayurvedic practice of swishing oil — typically sesame, but recently coconut — in your mouth for 20 minutes. Some proponents of the practice recommend that you start at five minutes and work your way up to between 10 and 20.


What does everyone say it does?

Sites like Wellness Mama and Food Matters tout all the benefits of oil pulling, and the latter even adds that it can transform your health. Oil pulling whitens teeth, eats away plaque and prevents cavities and gingivitis, they say.

“Possible” benefits include reducing eczema, curing hangovers, relieving migraines, reducing inflammation that results from arthritis and correcting hormone imbalances. That’s some list. Although Food Matters is careful to call these “possible” benefits, we’ve been down this rabbit hole before.

People really want that magic fix — that easy cure-all — and so something like oil pulling goes from effectively killing certain bacteria in your mouth to curing cancer. It becomes like a game of telephone, or a version of it, as people share it on social media and bolster it with anecdotal “evidence.” It goes viral because who doesn’t want an easy solution to a battery of medical issues, including cancer, that is inexpensive to boot?


What’s it actually do?

Oil pulling has been making the rounds on the Internet for a few years now, most recently a couple of weeks ago when KWWL asked an area dentist to weigh in. Beau Beecher offered a very measured response, not calling it outright horse pockey, but cautioning people to not replace general oral hygiene. That’s right. Make sure you don’t quit going to the dentist for those checkups.

The Huffington Post spoke with Michelle Hurlbutt, an associate professor of dental hygiene at Loma Linda University in Southern California, who said that oil pulling should not be used to treat gum disease or tooth decay. “It's more of a preventive rinse that could be used adjunctively with your regular mouth care routine,” she added.

Hurlbutt conducted a small pilot study and found that oil pulling “can decrease the bacteria associated with dental cavities.” According to her findings, sesame oil was more effective in decreasing bacteria than coconut oil. She cautioned, however, that her study, though promising, was too small and added “that larger-scale studies are needed to study oil pulling in more depth.”


Go on and try it

By all means, make it part of your usual oral hygiene routine, but don’t expect it to do what it simply cannot do, regardless of how many people swear that it helped their insomnia or asthma and cured their chronic illnesses. It would be great if there were some cheap fix out there that could bring permanent relief to people with chronic illnesses. But unfortunately, if it sounds like it’s too good to be true, it very likely is.

Saying that oil pulling seems effective in killing bacteria that, if unchecked, could lead to larger issues is not as sexy as saying it whitens teeth while keeping your heart healthy or curing you of [insert scary disease here]. And it won’t generate as many clicks. But making misleading claims about something also unfairly obscures the benefits it actually can offer.