Oil pulling, and the supposed health benefits of it, has been making the rounds for a few years now. You’ve probably even had a patient or two ask you about it. Spread through articles on social media and online blogs, oil pulling is touted as the latest and greatest way to improve oral health and purify your body.
As a dental hygienist, if you haven’t heard about this practice before, you are likely to have a patient bring it up sometime soon. The articles being shared on Facebook and written by natural health enthusiasts claim that oil pulling can improve or cure a wide range of ailments, from back pain to diabetes to asthma. It’s even been suggested as a remedy for mood swings, hormonal imbalances, and PMS!
One article I read was so positive about the practice of oil pulling that the author put it above modern medical science in its effectiveness against chronic ailments and aging. In fact, this particular article said that regular people who practice oil pulling regularly could live to 145 to 150 years old. Yes, that’s right — 145 to 150 years.
So how, exactly, does one practice oil pulling? The technique is ancient and comes from Ayurvedic practices; it requires you to use pure vegetable oils. By swishing or “pulling” these pure oils around in your mouth for at least 20 minutes, up to three times per day, you can remove harmful pathogens like bacteria and fungus from your mouth, teeth, gums and even throat. The technique is supposed to have its dramatic effects on all-over health by activating enzymes that remove toxins from the blood.
As a hygienist, my focus is on how — or if — oil pulling improves oral health. Some of the dental-specific claims for oil pulling include that it will stabilize mobile teeth, cure gum disease and dental caries, whiten teeth, and halt or even “fix” recession.
Oil Pulling and Dental Plaque
Dental plaque, just to review, is a bacterial biofilm that forms on teeth. It creates a polysaccharide matrix or physical barrier that protects bacteria from antibiotics, antiseptic rinses, and even your immune system. The strength of this biofilm is primarily why taking antibiotics to fight gum disease is largely ineffective.
For oil pulling to have any impact at all on tooth decay, the oils used would have to be able to break through this biofilm’s protective barrier. No scientific studies indicate that oil is able to penetrate the biofilm effectively. Dental researchers have found that mechanical or physical methods like brushing and flossing (or otherwise cleaning interdentally) is the only way to break through this biofilm.
Oil Pulling and Gum Disease
Can oil pulling heal gum disease? It’s unlikely that the swishing technique could get deep enough into periodontal pockets to be effective. Rinsing with mouthwash, for example, only reaches — at maximum — 2 mm into a gingival sulcus. Most patients with gingivitis or periodontitis have pockets that well exceed this depth. That’s why rinsing has been proven in scientific studies to be a poor delivery method for getting liquid subgingivally.
Unfortunately, there’s no indication that thicker oil would be any more likely to penetrate deeper subgingivally. A reproducible study with a large sample size would have to prove that the specific vegetable oils used in oil pulling could do what other liquids cannot.
Scientific Studies on Oil Pulling
It’s important to identify who the authors of articles about oil pulling are. Is the article you’re reading written by a medical or dental professional or a scientific researcher? In most cases, they’re penned by people with little or no medical or dental training who offer only anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of oil pulling.
If studies are cited in articles about oil pulling, is it possible to locate and check them? Sometimes the blog articles cherry pick information from the study and don’t look at the full results of the research.
One example: An article I read referenced a study that found oil pulling was effective in reducing plaque after 1 to 2 weeks. However, the full text of the study shows that the control group, using chlorhexidine, saw similar improvements at 24 and 48 hours and at 1 and two weeks. Perhaps the act of physically swishing for 20 minutes — with anything — is more important than the oil used. The specific study does not look at whether it was the mechanics of swishing that provided the benefit or the oil itself. There’s also no mention of probing depths or bleeding indices, nor is there a control group that used only water or salt water. This study leaves more questions unanswered than it proves any effectiveness for oil pulling.
More Reasons Why Oil Pulling is Unlikely to Benefit Oral Health
Let’s face it — do you have an extra 20 minutes, up to three times a day, to swish oil in your teeth? Brushing for two minutes twice a day, then flossing or cleaning interdentally in some way for a few minutes, takes much less time. It’s difficult enough to convince patients that they should spend the time to properly brush and floss! How can we talk people into taking up to an hour a day to swish with oil?
There are more issues with oil pulling. Patients who’ve tried the technique are reported to have experienced upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea. In a worst-case scenario, tiny droplets of oil could be inhaled and cause lipoid pneumonia.
Then there’s the issue with spitting the oil into the plumbing system. If your home is like most in the U.S., the pipes from the sink and toilet don’t function well when oil solidifies inside them. Clogged drains are the result.
What Does the ADA Say About Oil Pulling?
The American Dental Association has weighed in on the practice of oil pulling. Their statement says, “Based on the lack of currently available evidence, oil pulling is not recommended as a supplementary oral hygiene practice, and certainly not as a replacement for standard, time-tested oral health behaviors, and modalities. The ADA recommends that patients follow a standard oral hygiene regimen that includes twice-daily tooth brushing with fluoride toothpaste and cleaning between teeth once a day with floss or another interdental cleaner.”
The ADA also expresses concerns about the limitations with current studies about oil pulling. The research that the organization could find was considered unreliable due to:
- Small sample size
- Absence of negative controls
- Lack of demographic information on test subjects
- Lack of blinding, so bias could be present in the results
In other words, the ADA wants to see more rigorous scientific proof of benefits from oil pulling, including unbiased evidence that the technique reduces dental plaque and decay or improves oral health in any way.
It’s very true that a healthy mouth is needed for a healthy body. Oil pulling enthusiasts are right in wanting to improve their oral health to improve their overall well-being. Unfortunately, there’s simply not enough scientific evidence that shows oil pulling is the answer. More research is needed to have a good understanding of the technique and its effectiveness. I’d especially need to see that oil can reach the bottom of the gingival pocket or penetrate the biofilm barrier (among other questions I have). Until we have scientific, researched proof, I’ll have to stick with what’s already been scientifically proven.