I Don't Care What You Say, I Will Never Try Oil Pulling

If I could, I would ban the words “detoxify” and “toxin” from the English language.
Publish date:
May 29, 2014
science, toxins, oil pulling

I love a good placebo effect.

I haven’t experienced one in a long time, and I miss them. It’s been years since I've taken a pill (drug, supplement, or vitamin) and felt markedly better. This is probably due to my ever increasing skepticism in everything. The last time I remember thinking, “I feel much better and it’s because of this pill,” was when I took half of a Vicodin.

I don’t think that was a placebo effect though; that stuff does what they say it does.

Point is I would love to be one of those people who started taking handfuls of vitamins or juice fasting or oil pulling and suddenly “had way more energy” but the only thing that actually gives me more energy is exercising (boring).

Actually, scratch that, I would never be able to oil pull on a regular basis, even if there were a thousand peer-reviewed journal articles substantiating many of the wild claims that have been made about it.

It just really grosses me out.

“What is oil pulling?” NO ONE ASKED. Unless you are my husband (who swears he never heard of it before I brought it up) or a baby just pulled from its mother, you know that oil pulling is swishing oil around in your mouth for 20 minutes a day. The oil goes from clear to milky white (because you've agitated it into a well-aerated emulsion; the color change is not due to the presence of "toxins") and you spit it out.

No, thank you.

Twenty minutes is a long time to have something in your mouth. The thought of making an oil-saliva emulsion and swishing it around my teeth, gums, and tongue is gag-inducing. Oil pulling could make me a foot taller and give me perfect skin and I still couldn't pull it off without vomiting, and vomiting is really bad for your teeth.

Luckily, it doesn't do those things, so I don’t have to make that call.

But there are a variety of claims made about the benefits of oil pulling. There are those that seem somewhat believable, like fresher breath or whiter teeth, and then there are those that are less so, such as the curing of hangovers and the correction of hormone imbalances. The most popular article on the subject lists these “possible benefits:”

  • Migraine headache relief
  • Correcting hormone imbalances
  • Reducing inflammation of arthritis
  • May help with gastro-enteritis
  • Aids in the reduction of eczema
  • May reduce symptoms of bronchitis
  • Helps support normal kidney function
  • May help reduce sinus congestion
  • Some people report improved vision
  • Helps reduce insomnia
  • Reduced hangover after alcohol consumption
  • Aids in reducing pain
  • Reduces the symptoms of allergies
  • Helps detoxify the body of harmful metals and organisms

Ah, there it is: “detoxify.” If I could, I would ban the words “detoxify” and “toxin” from the English language because that would force people to specifically describe what they want removed from their bodies instead of using the catch-all “toxin.” ("Harmful metals and organisms" isn't good enough either. I want to know which metals are being removed and how.) Unfortunately, the word "toxin" has been so abused and overused, that if you were to ask someone to define it, it’s doubtful that they would respond with the correct definition (which I will provide):

tox•in noun \ˈtäk-sən\: a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.

I don’t have the power to ban words, which is probably for the best, but I do have the power to be that asshole that asks you to define your terms.

To be fair, most of those claims begin with "may" and other vague wording, but this is again another instance of hand-wavy malarkey being supported by nonspecific, unnamed "studies" which are referred to but not linked to. Also present are lots of sentences beginning with "It is known..." Who is it known by? We'll never know.

And why can’t something just be mildly good for you? Why does it have to be “amazing oh my god it changed my life this will handle all of what ails you”? Why can’t oil pulling just be something that benefits your oral health, instead of a miracle cure?

Do I believe that swishing oil around in your mouth could make it cleaner? Sure. Like does dissolve like, so it’s possible that oil could be used to break up lipophilic things that are hanging out in your mouth, but plaque isn't oil soluble so I would still recommend going to the dentist for a scraping. But calm, measured claims rarely drive hype.

The most realistic and logical summation of benefits I've seen were written by Dr. Sarah Villafranco:

You put oil in your mouth (fat), and swish it with your saliva (water and enzymes), and make a temporary emulsion, which has the inherent capability of binding oil and water soluble molecules, sweeping them both into the current.

The mixture is thicker (higher viscosity) than water or mouthwash, and has more mass as it moves through the spaces in your teeth. It just elbows its way into the nooks and crannies with more gusto.

The oil and enzymes work together to break down, bind, and lift some of the stains from teeth. I definitely noticed a whitening effect, but only to a certain point. I think I have reached maximum oil pulling whiteness (after about 2 months of doing it 4-5 times a week).

The swishing action stimulates circulation in the gums, and the prolonged time allows more microbes, particles, and plaque to be incorporated into the liquid, which is then ejected. (In this sense, you might get some of the benefits of oil pulling by mouthwash or water pulling for 15 minutes a day.)

Maybe it's because she used the word "viscosity," but that all sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Another sane take on the subject comes from periodontist Dr. Sanda Moldovan (who also holds a Masters in oral biology). She expresses that while oil pulling does work as a mouthwash and can decrease the presence of bacteria, it won't help with gum infections or already present cavities:

We don’t have any evidence to show that it is a good treatment for gum disease. And it makes sense that it wouldn't. Mouth wash is not a good treatment for periodontal disease either. Neither the oil nor the mouthwash gets under the gum more than a millimeter or two. I hate to be a spoil-sport, but oil pulling can’t heal cavities either; however, since it does reduce cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth, it can slow or halt ones that are already developing. What we've really just discovered is an old way to clean your mouth more thoroughly than you probably are now. And it probably seems really appealing as a new and improved thing to do, instead of just getting in there with toothbrush and floss.

I do hate flossing. But flossing and using my Sonicare toothbrush for two minutes is still a lot more efficient than gargling with oil for 20 minutes.

And while oral health is of great importance: "People with bad oral hygiene have higher incidence for cardiovascular issues such as heart attack and strokes," explains Dr. Moldovan, oil pulling is just one of the tools you can be using to get your mouth cleaner:

Oil pulling is not a substitute for brushing and flossing altogether, as many are claiming. I recommend using an oral irrigator, with the Waterpik brand being an excellent one — as the ideal cleaner for getting between teeth and preventing inflammation. I see with my patients using oil-pulling, there is still inflammation between the teeth, so flossing and oral irrigation are a must! In my opinion brushing for two minutes twice a day and water flossing daily for 60 seconds is much, much better than oil pulling.

So there you go: coconut oil


replace your mouthwash, but you still have to floss. And if it gives you a wonderful placebo effect, I'm happy for you (and a little jealous), but please don't stop brushing your teeth.