In 2006 I began running across a number of forum posts all asking the same question: “Has anyone tried oil pulling?” The names were (usually) different but something about the way the question was phrased–and the extensive explanation the asker went on to give after asking his or her question–often seem just a tad too familiar. As I began again to investigate, I came to suspect that many of those questions were being asked to “seed” interest in some new websites that promoted a completely bogus “therapy” called oil pulling. To this day I still believe it was an attempt at viral marketing–and I said so.
I also called woo on the existence of the doctor who supposedly introduced the medical community to the practice, the paper he was supposed to have presented and the medical conference where this world-altering event took place. More than a decade later “Dr. Karach” has still never reached out.
The original 2007 article I wrote on oil pulling became one of the most controversial pieces I would ever write. It also brought me my first rape threats. To this day I’m not sure why this article inspired such venom but here it is:
Is Oil Pulling A Scam? Debunking Oil Pulling
If you’ve not already heard of oil pulling, you will soon. Also known as oil swishing, oil pulling is supposed to detoxify your body with oil held in your mouth. Let’s find out why oil pulling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
What About Oil Pulling Research?
Try as we may, we weren’t able to turn up even a single study on oil pulling’s detoxing actions in preparation for this article, which was published in February of 2007. None of the “research” mentioned on pro-OP web sites has been published in any peer-reviewed journal we could find. Not even in “natural” journals catering to complementary and alternative medicine. Nor could we find any information on the supposed “doctor” popularizing this amazing new technique. We were also unable to find any reference to “oil pulling” in any of our Ayurveda text books. We found several references to an already-known practice called oil gargling but nothing that instructed users to “swish” vegetable oil around in their mouths for 20 minutes.
There was one study, done in India, that looked at oil pulling and gingivitis. However, it in no way addressed oil pulling as a cure for anything or as a detox method. It looked only at oil pulling’s ability to reduce gingivitis—something I’ve agreed with from the very beginning.
How to Perform Oil Pulling
The website oilpulling.com instructs readers to take one tablespoon of fresh vegetable or nut oil into their mouths and “sip, suck and pull through the teeth for fifteen or twenty minutes” before spitting the oil into the sink. According to the author of this site, swishing “activates the enzymes” allowing the enzymes to “draw toxins out of the blood”. But don’t swallow the oil! The oil has, in the words of the author, “become toxic”. After spitting the oil into the sink, you must wash the sink carefully because it now contains “harmful bacteria and toxic bodily waste”.
Unfortunately, that’s about as specific as the instructions get. Some oil pullers claim to only use olive oil; others only use coconut, still others say it doesn’t matter. Some oil pullers swear they only use refined oils; others claim only pure, unrefined oils will do. The problem is that each oil has unique chemical properties. Shouldn’t there be a “best” oil if oil pulling was a legitimate detoxing practice?
What Oil Pulling Is Supposed to Do for You
According to various oil pulling web sites, “healing research” has “attracted amazement” over the potential healing benefits of oil pulling. And they aren’t shy about making claims, either. Oil pulling is supposed to help with:
- Heart Disease
- Kidney Disease
Even on older sites, like earthclinic.com, there are these claims and more, including vague references to “women’s hormonal disorders” and claims of curing cancer, AIDS and chronic infections.
What Pulling Oil Might Do For You
As skeptical as we are about oil pulling’s ability to “detoxify the body”, there’s little doubt that oil swishing may help some people feel that their teeth were healthier after practicing oil pulling for a few days. Remember, according to oilpulling.com and other pro-OP web sites, your “oral cavity must be thoroughly rinsed and mouth must be washed” after oil swishing. Isn’t it possible that anyone thoroughly brushing and rinsing his or her teeth every day would see a marked improvement just as a result of increased attention to oral hygiene?
And let’s not forget that oil swishing is, after all, probably doing a pretty good job massaging the tissues of the mouth. Massage means better blood flow and better blood flow could quite possibly mean stronger teeth. And, perhaps, some of the oils (and the preservatives added to those oils during the manufacturing process) have at least some anti-microbial action. (An extremely small non-controlled study of 10 volunteers in India actually did find that oil pulling reduced dental plaque and gingivitis.)
Then there’s the matter of people reporting better skin. Again, I have absolutely no doubt that many of those experiences are real. The oils used for oil pulling are often high in the essential fatty acids that are often lacking in the American diet but which are necessary for healthy skin. I couldn’t “vigorously” swish something in my mouth for 20 minutes without swallowing at least a little of it, could you? That some people experience better skin after oil pulling doesn’t surprise me one bit.
Does this mean that oil pulling is worth the time and trouble it takes? That’s up to you.
What Oil Pulling Probably Can’t Do For You
Oil pulling is supposed to “pull” toxins (no mention of what “toxins” means) out of your blood and bind them somehow to the oil. But there are serious flaws in this theory:
First, your blood vessels don’t just leak toxins. If chemicals could just leak through the walls of your arteries and veins we’d have no need for oil pulling, would we? We could just rinse our mouths briefly several times a day with plain water and be done with it.
Second, the whole idea behind oil swishing is based on exposing the oil to the large veins under the tongue. But anyone versed in basic human anatomy will tell you that those blood vessels simply aren’t large enough to expose your entire blood supply to the oil in the 15-20 minutes allowed for the procedure.
Another Reason Oil Pulling Can’t “Detox” You As Promised
We all know that “toxins” are real. No one is disputing that. But toxins that would be “attracted” to the oil used in oil swishing would be fat-soluble. (Because if they were water-soluble, they wouldn’t be attracted to the oil.) And fat soluble toxins don’t just run around freely in your bloodstream. They’d be stored in your body’s fat cells.
So ask yourself this one question: What makes oil swishing so special that it forces your body’s cells to suddenly turn loose of all this stored toxic material? And what effect would this sudden dumping of toxins have on your body’s natural filtering systems—the liver and kidneys? At least some of this pollution would reach them first, as those “toxins” head toward those large veins under your tongue. And that would tax your liver and kidneys pretty noticeably, wouldn’t it?
Finally, since the toxins that would be circulating in your bloodstream would be more likely to be water-soluble than fat-soluble, wouldn’t swishing plain water for 20 minutes actually do a better job than oil at removing toxins?
Is Oil Pulling Dangerous?
I see no real way that oil pulling could be dangerous. After all, it’s just vegetable oil. Assuming you don’t choke on it, oil pulling is probably completely harmless.
So, Is It Just A Placebo?
Some skeptics have suggested that oil pulling works purely through placebo response. I’ll leave that up to you to decide. But you now have the information to understand why oil swishing can’t “pull” toxins out of your blood and the information to make up your own mind about oil pulling.
Amith, H., et al. (2007). Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque and Gingivitis. Journal of Oral Health & Community Dentistry. (This is the study referenced above in the oral health section.)
A few weeks after the original oil pulling article was published it became a topic of conversation on some of the large alt med health forums–everything from mommy forums to crackpot conspiracy boards. But that’s a topic for another post . . .