I Oil Pulled for a Month and All I Got Was This Sore Tongue
July 23, 2014
When are you going to do oil pulling?!
For about two months, that’s what every other email in my inbox asked, each one more impatient than the last. By not trying the new tooth care regimen, which was making its rounds on the internet, I was obviously failing in my commitment to make myself a human guinea pig for funky claims and health fads. Fun fact: Guinea pigs actually aren’t among the most common animals used in experiments. Rats, mice, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates make up 90% of animals used in laboratories, but “human bird” just doesn’t sound the same.
This oil pulling trend is having its fifteen minutes of fame all over the Web, especially on social media.
“Transform your health!” one ad read.
“Prevent bad breath!”
“Stop dry mouth!”
“Heal jaw soreness!”
“Get whiter teeth!”
“Get healthier gums!”
“Stop looking like a disgusting ogre with thumbs for teeth!”
All I had to do to perfect my pearly whites was swish a tablespoon of oil (sunflower or sesame is preferred) around my mouth for twenty minutes a day, pulling toxins out of my teeth and gums and “improving my overall oral health.” I decided to go for it: for thirty days, I would oil pull every day.
This method of oral torture has its origins in Ayurveda, an ancient healing system from India’s Vedic tradition. While Ayurveda dates back more than 5,000 years, oil pulling’s actual genesis is uncertain. It appears to have become popular in 1992 after a Russian doctor named Fedor Karach advocated the practice, thereby catching the attention of Lt. Col. Tummala Koteswara Rao, an Indian Ayurvedic practitioner. Whether the practice itself is ancient is unclear.
It was the perfect thing for me to try out. Although I take good care of my mouth now, as a child I routinely went to bed without brushing my teeth, telling my mom I had already done it while she wasn’t watching (full disclosure: I also hid my Flintstones vitamins under the living room table; sorry, Mom). So, I went out and bought the largest bottle of sunflower oil at my local grocery store, for a paltry $4.
I set it by my sink with a tablespoon, ready to go. I wasn’t allowed to use it yet because most pro-oil-pulling websites recommend swishing first thing in the morning before brushing.
I took a “before” photo of my teeth as they were. Thanks to my bathroom lighting and coffee habit, they looked especially stained that day, a perfect experiment to see if a single swishing would improve my coloration.
My first swig of oil was what you might call disgusting. The second the oil hit my tongue, it careened over the back of my tongue in a tidal wave of liquid fat, then dripped down the back of my throat, mimicking the sensation of a post-nasal drip, but with all the added charm of pizza grease. I shook my head in protest, and made a few growling noises, like a dog caught in a muzzle. When I finally gave in and swished the oil around, I found it somewhat tolerable. By moving the oil constantly, my taste buds didn’t have quite as much chance to lock in on a static taste.
Minute one passed, then minute two. Around minute three, I realized exactly how long twenty minutes is. Twenty minutes is a one-act play, the majority of a network sitcom, and about how long my dad can talk about ways to get mail-order meat. It’s a long time.
And worse, my tongue was starting to ache. All that swishing involved micro-movements I wasn’t even consciously telling my tongue to engage in. Yet, these tiny muscles were popping up out of nowhere, jumping and sliding to make sure no oil went the wrong way.
After five minutes, I gave up and spat it out. Some websites had said five-to-twenty minutes of oil pulling was sufficient.
“I’m sufficient!” I thought.
Then I brushed my teeth and spent most of the day trying to forget the taste of liquid sunflower nightmares.
By day ten, I had learned to stomach the experience of oil pulling. My muscle memory had adapted to the sensation of viscous fluid creeping across my tongue, and I could keep it relatively in place without too much thought. It was still gross, and too much swishing still made my tongue hurt.
But instead of focusing too much on the movement of the oil, I took the advice of one popular website, which told me to merely gently toss the stream of liquid garbage from one side of my mouth to the other “lazily.” The toxins were getting pulled out anyway, it said. The oil was reaching below the surface of my gums and pulling out bacteria and all sorts of crap, it said. I was reaping the benefits even if it felt too easy.
I really don’t know what other toxins there would be in my mouth, besides bacteria. Thetans? But like all other “detox” fads, this one doesn’t seem to hold water. The body is a marvelous detoxifying machine, and most of us can “detoxify” without any help, making claims about “toxins” pure pseudoscience.
When my month had passed, I was elated. I had spent ten full hours swishing oil around my mouth, and my teeth were... whiter? Healthier? Less... toxified? You be the judge.
Any change I thought I was seeing in my teeth seemed likely to be suggestion, a suspicion I confirmed later when I removed the captions from the photos and couldn’t tell day one from day thirty. And as for “toxins,” I didn’t feel any healthier than I had before the process began, although the constant oil did make me never want pizza again, which might be a boon for my long-term health.
I put away my oil that day, but it had made me think more about my dental health. I am not a religious dentist-goer, and although I’m a devout brusher, I knew I could be doing more. Flossing was out, since I had read about recent research showing that it added nothing to a consistent brushing routine (Pomeroy 2013).
What else did people do when they turned thirty and suddenly realized their teeth were mortal?
I asked Claire Knowlton, a 31-year old who oil pulls occasionally, what results she has seen from pulling.
“I notice a big improvement in my morning breath when I’ve been oil pulling,” she said. “I think it also has a whitening effect. In the past, it also made my teeth feel dentist-office clean. I started using an electric toothbrush last year, so now my teeth always feel dentist-office clean. But when I was just using a manual toothbrush, oil pulling made a noticeable difference.”
Claire had gotten at the heart of the matter: in lieu of other advanced dental products like antibacterial mouth wash and electric toothbrushes, oil pulling could make a noticeable difference. But for someone like me, who has access to advanced dental care, and who uses a mouth wash every day, the science indicates that oil pulling won’t do anything extra for me, and that using it instead of mouth wash would be a dental step down.
But I still wanted that dentist-clean feel Claire was experiencing. So I ordered an electric toothbrush.
After three days of using my new brush, I noticed something.
Well, so much for oil pulling being the savior of mouths everywhere, but it still seemed to do the trick better than nothing, and with about 34% of Americans saying they didn’t go to the dentist last year, nothing is exactly what many of us are doing.
Before giving up on sunflower-oil-as-fluoride entirely, I asked Bryan Safi, a comedian from Los Angeles, about his experience with the practice. I asked if he would recommend it to a friend. He already had.
“Have you seen results?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “My teeth feel clean. What's weird is I kind of don't care. It makes me feel like I'm doing something good for my health, and that feeling seems worth it.”
Amith, HV, et al. 2007. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque and Gingivitis. Journal of Oral Health and Community Dentistry 1 (1): 12-18.
Asokan, Sharath, et al. 2009. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque Induced Gingivitis: A Randomized, Controlled, Triple-Blind Study. Indian Journal of Dental Research. Online at: http://www.ijdr.in/article.asp?issn=0970-9290;year=2009;volume=20;issue=1;spage=47;epage=51;aulast=asokan.
Shepard, Vicki and Patrick Bogart. 2011. Gallup-Healthways Monthly U.S. Well-Being Report. Online at: http://wellbeing.healthways.com/files/2011_WBI_AugustReport.pdf.
Humane Society International. 2014. About Animal Testing. Online at: http://www.hsi.org/campaigns/end_animal_testing/qa/about.html.
Pomeroy, Ross. 2013. The Flimsy Evidence for Flossing. Online at: http://bigthink.com/experts-corner/the-flimsy-evidence-for-flossing.