Oil pulling: promises so sweet, what’s it doing to my teeth?

The ancient practice of oil pulling is being repackaged for the digital age. Are the lies about it getting resold as well?

Oil pulling – swishing an unrefined oil in your mouth for 10-20 minutes to “pull” bacteria from the mouth has recently gained popularity on TikTok. It’s not a new concept though. Articles report that oil pulling first showed up in Ayurvedic medicine thousands of years ago.

Ayurvedic medicine is a traditional medicine practice that focuses on balance and natural remedies. It’s still practiced around the world, but the evidence for it is scattered and inconclusive. This is in part because many Ayurvedic practices claim to unilaterally cure dozens of ailments. Oil pulling, for instance, is said to cure 30 diseases.

Regardless of effectiveness, oil pulling has enjoyed cyclical popularity in modern times.

Anecdotally, oil pulling was first re-popularized in the 1990s during a presentation by Dr. Fedor Karach, although no record of him or the presentation can be found despite still being regularly cited. Oil pulling made its rounds again in the mid-2010s, popularized by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Shailene Woodley. At the time, how-to’s usually focused on swishing unspecific oils for arbitrary amounts of time.

Today, on TikTok, oil pulling is a commercial endeavor and Guru Nanda’s branded mouthwashes are the leading attraction. As opposed to ten years ago, the general sense now is that it’s better to buy a pre-made product. To date, just one internet storefront has sold over 1.7 million bottles of Guru Nanda’s oil pulling mouthwashes.

Just as in the past, modern claims of what oil pulling achieves are all over the place. Guru Nanda’s CEO has made an effort to clarify what their mouthwashes can do, but the company still benefits from the many misconceptions. TikTok sellers make claims of teeth strengthening and whitening and body “detoxification.” Plus, pitches for Guru Nanda products often show grotesque recreations of what was “pulled” from the person’s gums after use.

This is all likely an overrepresentation of what oil pulling actually does. But what is that exactly?

It’s hard to tell.

A lot of the research on oil pulling is low quality and hard to reproduce. Very small sample sizes plague existing studies, and large meta-analyses have a hard time determining statistical significance of any result. No articles demonstrate that oil pulling strengthens, whitens, or detoxifies teeth or the body.

At best, some studies show oil pulling may be associated with a decrease in counts of certain bacteria related to tooth decay. It’s also possible that some oils like coconut or sesame are more effective than others.

But even if oil pulling does something, it’s not very user friendly. For one, users must swish for 10-20 minutes; this can lead to jaw strain and is quite time-consuming. Plus, users must spit the oil out in the trash rather than the sink – oil clogs drains.

To make matters worse, oil pulling research doesn’t stand against research on traditional antiseptic, teeth whitening, or fluoride-based mouthwashes.

In a review of 28 systematic reviews and 18 meta-analyses on mouthwash, all found it inhibited and reduced plaque and gingivitis. There was no consensus on what mouthwash was best, but some did have distinct benefits over others, like strengthening teeth (fluoride) or eliminating more microorganisms (antiseptic and prescription).

Regarding usability, standard mouthwashes only need to be swished for 30-60 seconds to be effective, and they can be spit right into the sink. Plus, standard mouthwashes are the same no matter where you buy them. (The number of counterfeit Guru Nanda products have soared, creating a potentially dangerous market for consumers.)

Consumers want what’s best for their health, and sellers on TikTok are ready to take advantage of that. All that we know and don’t know about oil pulling tells us that rinsing with standard mouthwash takes less effort, costs less, and is more effective. Regardless of the product, all consumers deserve concrete evidence that it actually works, and oil pulling just doesn’t meet the mark.

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