Claim: Swishing plant oils in your mouth ameliorates a variety of medical ailments.
Examples: [Collected via e-mail, March 2014]
Origins: "Oil pulling" is the somewhat unusual term for the practice of swishing a type of unrefined plant oil (e.g., coconut, sesame, sunflower, olive, palm) around in one's mouth. This activity is touted, when practiced thoroughly (be sure to coat your teeth and gums!) and regularly as having a variety of oral hygiene benefits, such as whitening teeth, strengthening gums, and eliminating plaque. It is also claimed to have other medical benefits, such as pain relief, the prevention (or even the lessening) of ailments such as cancer and heart disease, and the purging of toxins from the body. (The term "oil pulling" refers to the notion that the activity "pulls" toxins from one's system and/or "pulls" them out through the teeth or mouth when the practitioner spits out the oil solution.)
The history behind oil pulling, as described at Skeptoid, is that:
Regardless, it didn't break into mainstream alternative circles until a naturopath and nutritionist named Bruce Fife started evangelizing it in his 2008 book Oil Pulling Therapy: Detoxifying and Healing the Body Through Oral Cleansing. Fife's breathless descriptions of the incredible things that swishing with coconut oil could do, done as part of his role as president of the Coconut Research Center (which is apparently a thing), worked wonders.
Oil pulling took off like a granola rocket in the natural cures crowd. There are now countless websites and blogs devoted to the benefits of this ancient Indian treatment, full of before and after pictures, tips and flowery testimonials from people who say it's drastically improved their health. Oil pulling is said to treat chronic pain, insomnia, cavities, allergies, thrombosis, diabetes, asthma, bad breath, gingivitis, digestive issues, meningitis, low energy, heart disease, kidney disease, "toxic bodily waste," PMS, leukemia and even AIDS. Oil pulling, it would seem, is truly a life-changing medical miracle.
But even that much benefit might simply be the residual effect of regularly rinsing one's gums with water (or any other fluid), not necessarily the results of specifically using a particular type of oil for that purpose. (The fact that several quite different types of oil are all proffered by various sources as the one "proper" substance to use in oil pulling therapies argues against the idea that some property specific to the type of oil used is actually producing the claimed effects.):
The American Dental Association similarly noted the absence of proper scientific studies demonstrating any beneficial dental- or oral-related effects from oil pulling:
Current reports on the potential health benefits of oil pulling have clear limitations. Existing studies are unreliable for a number of reasons, including the misinterpretation of results due to small sample size, confounders, absence of negative controls, lack of demographic information, and lack of blinding. To date, scientific studies have not provided the necessary clinical evidence to demonstrate that oil pulling reduces the incidence of dental caries, whitens teeth or improves oral health and well-being.
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.
That said, is there any real harm to oil pulling? Its benefits may be unproven, and it may perform no better a job of promoting oral hygiene than ordinary dental rinse or mouthwash will, but are you risking anything in undertaking it other than the cost of the oil? It a nutshell, possibly:
American Dental Association. "The Practice of Oil Pulling." 14 May 2014. Cheshire, Sara. "Does Oil Pulling Work?" CNN.com. 6 August 2014. Haupt, Angela. "Should You Try Oil Pulling?" U.S. News & World Report. 23 April 2014.