In the final article in the Bad Science series, we examine oil pulling. Is it a miracle cure, snake oil or harmless?
What is oil pulling?
This is the practice of swirling oil around your mouth and then spitting it out. It usually involves coconut oil, sunflower oil or sesame seed oil. Rinsing should be continued for perhaps 5 to 20 minutes, so that the edible oil is pulled through the teeth and mouth.
Where does the practice of oil pulling come from?
A traditional remedy originated from traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India. It has become popular after its benefits were extolled online. Promoters say the oil pulls out toxins, which are known as 'ama' in Ayurvedic medicine.
What are the reputed benefits of oil pulling?
Various websites advocate coconut oil pulling as an effective way to whiten teeth and remove bacteria. Some advocates online suggest it can treat tooth decay, kill bad breath, heal bleeding gums, prevent cavities and even prevent heart disease. There is a book, entitled Oil pulling therapy,1 that promises it exerts a powerful cleansing and healing effect on the mouth and sinuses and the rest of the body.
Is there evidence for oil pulling offering benefits to dental hygiene?
There are plenty of testimonials available online from people who praise its use, but scientific evidence is lacking. One recent review2 found that oil pulling might be as effective as chlorhexidine mouthwash in reducing plaque. First study author, Oghenekome Gbinigie at the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine, University of Oxford, UK, said: 'At present there isn't enough information about the benefits and potential harms of oil pulling to help us decide whether or not we should take on daily oil pulling, in addition to tooth brushing.'
Another review3 looked at the oil pulling literature and identified 21 studies, but concluded that only six had proper study design. The reviewer concluded that the studies were unreliable, sometimes due to poor study design or small sample science. There is a need for bigger trials, of longer duration and of high quality.
Are there potential downsides for patients using oil pulling?
There are few reported side effects from oil pulling, but some have drawn attention to case reports of lipoid pneumonia associated with oil pulling or mineral oil aspiration. Upset stomach has also been reported. More trial data are required to provide evidence of possible side effects.
Is oil pulling an alternative to brushing or other dental hygiene practices?
Though some oil pulling advocates say it can be used instead of tooth brushing, many say it should be used together with regular dental hygiene practices. There is no evidence to support it as a substitute to tooth brushing. The American Dental Association has stated that there is insufficient research to support the practice of oil pulling.
Can oil pulling be labelled as pseudoscience?
The author of the book Oil pulling therapy,1 Bruce Fife, says it can help with allergies, asthma, chronic fatigue, diabetes and migraine headaches. Others4 say it can improve acne, strengthen gums and jaws and heal bleeding gums. The expansiveness of the claims seems suspicious.
There is no evidence that oil pulling can prevent cavities, detoxify the body, strengthen teeth, treat cancer or reduce headaches, despite such claims made online. Many of these reputed benefits reek of pseudoscience quackery of the worse kind, promising exceptional health benefits without scientific evidence to support them.
Whether the practice of oil pulling can make a positive contribution to good dental hygiene is uncertain. A recent review2 suggested that it may have beneficial effects in dental hygiene, but requires more rigorous and better reported clinical trials.