Oil Pulling: examining fact and fiction on coconut oil’s miracle powers

By now you may heard of a “new” dental practice: oil pulling. While it actually isn’t new (the idea has been around for thousands of years, supposedly placing its roots in Ayruvedic medicine), Dr. Skinner and Dr. Chudleigh think it’s a good idea to discuss the perceived and the proven benefits of oil pulling so our patients at Louisville Dental Associates have all the facts.

First: what is “oil pulling”?

For those new to the idea, oil pulling got its name from the action of “pulling”– i.e., swishing and sucking– oil through one’s teeth. While one can use other oils, the most common oil used today in our country for this practice is coconut oil.

In an article addressing oil pulling, Dr. Jessica T. Emery recommends that the patient “pull” for about 20 minutes, or until the oil is milky white. The idea is that the oil is picking up pathogens– bacteria, viruses, or even fungi (although you’d have to be pretty sick for fungi to get past your own immune system)– that are living in your mouth. Spit the pathogen-laden oil in the garbage, rinse and spit, and voila! Oil pulling completed.

Why coconut oil?

Aah… now we’re getting to the (coconut) meat of the matter. Oil pullers prefer and recommend coconut oil because they believe coconut oil to have vast beneficial qualities: antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, cholesterol lowering (remember not to swallow though), relieves halitosis and gingivitis, whitens teeth, and more.

According to Dr. Emery, coconut oil works so well because it is high in “medium chain fatty acids” which interact with bacterial fatty acid membranes, disrupting the membrane and killing the cell. Lauric acid, or dodecanoic acid, is one of the big names among these medium chain fatty acids, and is also used in soaps.

The hype vs. the facts

Dr. Emery report,s “People that ‘oil pull’ state that it has helped whiten their teeth, alleviate halitosis, and even reduce gingivitis. In many cases, people also claim that it helps ‘prevent’ cavities, as well as relieve gum and tooth sensitivity.” She goes on to provide two case studies– herself and her father– of pullers who have experienced improvements in oral health following pulling.

Unfortunately, single case studies and testimonials are not concrete, peer-reviewed scientific evidence. While oil pulling is certainly interesting and popular, there is not yet evidence supporting its long list of touted benefits. Another article on oil pulling posted on Prevention.com also lacks sufficient evidence: it presents two small case studies in India (not cited in the article) and a beauty editor’s testimonial that her “mouth felt cleaner.”

Dr. Harriet Hall, a writer for Science Based Medicine, states that researchers are skeptical because “there is no concrete scientific data” to support the benefits of coconut oil– any of them. The American Dental Association shares this view, in an article addressing the fad of oil pulling, stating “websites that support natural therapies are also fanning hope—and strong emotions” without sufficient evidence to support these claims.

Consistently, the evidence offered– even by Dr. Emery– is anecdotal or based on small, non peer-reviewed case studies. While the evidence may be there, it has not yet been proven.

The take-home message

We all want the best health. Fads like oil pulling are compelling because they present us with the possibility of a “miracle” substance whose natural capabilities are free from “man-made” chemicals or artificial ingredients. Of course this sounds like a great idea! And it may be, once the research has been done.

What we do know is that brushing and flossing daily and regular visits to your dentist are proven to prevent decay and maintain oral health. While Dr. Skinner and Dr. Chudleigh don’t see any reason not to practice oil pulling in addition to brushing and flossing, we at Louisville Dental Associates want to emphasize the importance of continuing your daily oral hygiene routine if you choose to follow alternative medical practices.

More questions?

If you want to speak to us more about oil pulling or other alternative medical practices, please don’t hesitate to ask Louisville, CO Dentist Drs. Skinner or Chudleigh next time you’re in the office, or give us a call and let us visit with you over the phone. We understand your health is your top priority, and it’s our goal to provide you with science-based, clinically-proven information to help you make the best decisions in your health.

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