On Trend: Oil Pulling

I may be a little late on reporting the “latest craze” with this one, but here we are. Oil pulling. When I first heard the term, I couldn’t believe it has nothing to do with gas companies or oil rigs. Essentially, oil pulling involves taking a tablespoon of oil (I later learned that coconut oil was the more glamorous option), and swishing it around the mouth for twenty minutes to reap supposed oral health benefits. Most people opt to take up oil pulling in hopes to replace flossing. My thought? I didn’t even know people could hate flossing THAT much.

Oil pulling - The Debtist

Where did oil pulling come from?

Oil pulling has actually been around for centuries. Previously known as “kavala” or “gundusha”, this ancient dental technique has its roots from India. It is believed that the oil is capable of binding to toxins and pulling them out from the body. It was primarily used to improve oral health but has been applied to other aspects of health as well. However, the oil needs to be in contact for long periods of time in order for it to have an effect, hence the twenty minutes of swishing.

Supposed benefits

The internet is teeming with a number of supposed health benefits to oil pulling. It seems that there are many advocates for this holistic trend spanning social media websites. Below is a list of benefits that I found people were claiming this new trend has to offer.

  • whiter teeth
  • cavity/gingivitis prevention
  • better breath
  • stronger teeth and gums
  • less jaw pain, sleep problems, and sinus issues
  • alleviation of headaches, hangovers and skin issues

My Personal Perspective

No offense, but my first non-filtered reaction was “uhm, ew?!” Just the thought of swishing a tablespoon (why so much?!) of coconut oil around made me shudder. Coconut oil at room temperature is SOLID, and it takes a while for the oil to melt in your mouth due to body heat. Taste and texture definitely makes or breaks the practice, and while they say you can use other plant-based, cold-pressed, organic oils such as sunflower oil, sesame oil and olive oil, I do agree that coconut seems to be the most … manageable? Don’t get me wrong, I love those oils in my salads and I’ve been known to make a famous chocolate chip cookie recipe using coconut oil, but letting them sit in my mouth is just not the same thing. Of course, curiosity kills the cat, and I did try it out for myself. Verdict? As predicted, I was not able to cope. I could hardly keep the oil in my mouth for longer than a few seconds! Forget about twenty minutes. I couldn’t help but wonder, is flossing SO bad that one needs to spend twenty minutes of their day oil pulling instead of flossing for two?! I know, I know, I’m biased. But STILL. I say, more power to the people who are able to do oil pulling successfully once, let alone three to four times a week. Plus, if it were all true and the oils do bind to microbes, hypothetically after twenty minutes of swishing, pushing and pulling that oil into all the gingival crevices of your mouth, you’ve essentially got a wad of bacteria. And still swishing…which to me, seems a bit gross. And that’s coming from a DENTIST!

Oil pulling - The Debtist

My Professional Opinion

There is little formal trial data that supports any of the health benefits claimed by oil pulling. While it may be true that oil pulling pulls toxins out of the body, we must remember that causes of cavities and gingival disease involve acid produced by bacteria, not toxins. Therefore, the pulling of toxins does not necessarily have anything to do with cavity prevention. Some may argue that vitamin E resides in coconut oil which have antibacterial properties, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Vitamin E does not select for the bad bacteria and may actually be doing as much damage if it is also removing the good bacteria. Our oral biome consists of both the good and bad, and if we take away good bacteria, we will give the bad bacteria an opportunity to thrive. Because Vitamin E isn’t proven to be selective for removing only the bad bacteria, I don’t think this argument suffices for supporting that oil pulling reduces cavities and gingival disease. Lastly, some people claim that oil pulling is as effective as chlorhexidine in treating bad breath, but may I suggest that swishing WATER around for twenty minutes would result in better breath too…

I am not here to completely shut down the idea of oil pulling. But I am here to say that there is not enough scientific evidence to support this ancient dental technique. There are studies, but most have been found to have flaws in their methods. I would still consider oil pulling as a possible supplement to brushing and flossing, but not a complete replacement. As of now, the American Dental Association has deemed insufficient clinical research to support oil pulling as a stand alone preventative treatment that works. Sorry, but yes this means that you still need to floss. Yes, you can roll your eyes at me.

Giving Oil Pulling a Try? Things You Should Know:

If you are going to try oil pulling, may I recommend the following?

  • Still floss! Just as water flossers cannot fully replace flossing, any oil you swish in your mouth cannot get in between tooth contacts!
  • Swish gently. Twenty minutes is a very long time and vigorous swishing can result in jaw pain and tension. Headaches have been reported as a side effect of oil pulling, which can be due to the stresses placed on the temporal muscles. Headaches are also common in clenchers and grinders who undergo similar long periods of muscle tension. Take it easy, take it slow.
  • Do not swallow the oil. If the point is to bind to toxins, we do not want to ingest all those toxins you’ve collected by swishing the oil around.
  • Once you are finished, spit the oil into the trash, not the sink. Oils can clog up the sink’s drain pipes, and explaining to the plumber why you’ve got clogged pipes will surely be interesting.
  • Brush as you normally would after a session of oil pulling. I would feel much better knowing that you’ve removed all the oil after the swishing, just in case. Plus, I am sure brushing will help to remove that slimy, oily feel and taste that I just couldn’t take. I guarantee your cup of coffee would taste much better if it wasn’t chasing coconut oil from a morning’s session of oil pulling, wouldn’t you agree?

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