From celebrities to health gurus and beauty insiders, oil pulling’s gotten some serious attention. Is it legit?
My mom’s been doing it for years but is the oil-pulling health fad pulling our legs more than anything else? I decided to learn more.
“Ick, ick, ick, gag, ick, gag.” This is what my poor mother — the big brain behind VMV Hypoallergenics’ phenomenal science — hears from me when she tells me to try oil pulling, which she does regularly. I have PFAPA (Periodic Fever, Aphthous stomatitis, Pharyngitis and Adenitis) which, at its simplest, means I have an over-zealous inflammatory response and get sick several times a year at regular intervals. When I have a flare-up, to help with the aphthous lesions (canker sores), painful throat, and inflamed adenoids (and eventual sinusitis), she hands me some virgin coconut oil with the one-word instruction: gargle.
I don’t need convincing that virgin coconut oil (VCO) is good for you. There is a solid and growing body of science on this incredible substance’s multiple benefits for skin, mind, and body. My mother herself has authored many of the randomized, double-blind studies published on VCO that are in peer-reviewed medical journals, and she is considered an authority on it. I use the stuff on my skin, it’s in almost every VMV product. My family and I eat it daily in salads and more (we cook with it, too). But swishing and gargling with it? Ick. And gag.
After another flare-up I thought: ok, woman, oil pulling’s quite the fad and your mom’s never wrong about these things…find out more. So I did. These are the 5 most compelling things that I learned in my personal “skinvestigation.”
01 : SWISHING IS ON PURPOSE
Eating virgin coconut oil is great for your heart and cells. Coconut oil is so good for you that even less-pure, non-hypoallergenic RBD oil that we wouldn’t recommend for skin is better for cooking than other oils. Applying VCO on the skin is excellent for cellular strength, barrier repair, moisturization and disinfection. But why swish it around in the mouth? The logic of oil-pulling goes: if VCO is so good when eaten and applied topically, its absorption through the mouth could be a faster, more efficient way of getting the benefits of VCO.
Because the mouth’s mucosal interior is full of blood vessels, many drugs are made specifically to be absorbed in the mouth (a common one is sublingual melatonin). Mouth absorption can act faster and bypass the digestive tract, entering the body’s systemic circulation directly and delivering health benefits that would otherwise be lost to gastrointestinal and metabolic processing.
In other words, eating VCO and applying it on skin and hair are awesome ways to get its benefits, but you can get even more by its being absorbed through the mouth lining.
*Zhang H1, Zhang J, Streisand JB. Oral mucosal drug delivery: clinical pharmacokinetics and therapeutic applications. Clin Pharmacokinet. 2002;41(9):661-80.
02 : TEETH, GUMS, BREATH
With its proven antimicrobial action, VCO swilling may be able to fend off cavities (which are bacterial infections). As an anti-inflammatory, it prevents gum disease and soreness. Anecdotally, my mother can’t remember the last time she had a cavity or gum problem. At her last dental visit for preventive maintenance, the dentist pulled staff from his full clinic to see this septuagenarian’s amazing teeth.
Bad breath? Oil pulling could help by minimizing halitosis-causing bacteria.
What about whitening teeth? It seems possible. Bacteria is a cause of enamel erosion which is what leads to dentin’s natural yellow color showing through.
03 : CAN IT HELP SKIN?
Indirectly, by controlling bacteria, oil pulling could potentially reduce your need for fluoridated mouthwashes and let you switch to a fluoride-free toothpaste like Essence Skin-Saving Toothpaste…and we know that doing so can dramatically clear up acne around the mouth, and on the chin and jaw line (fluorides can be acnegenic.)
More directly, if you have a compromised immune system (as some who are undergoing cancer therapy do), or sores from PFAPA, Behçet’s, herpes or another condition, or if you have Sjogren’s disease (which makes the skin and mucosal surfaces dry), VCO pulling can help soothe the pain, and help clear the lesions faster.
04 : WHY VIRGIN COCONUT OIL?
The mouth is both very sensitive and a hotbed of microbes. It seems like if oil pulling is beneficial it’s largely due to the antibacterial action — in which case, VCO’s proven broad-spectrum anti-microbial effects (on bacteria, fungi and viruses) makes it the ideal choice.
Other pluses are VCO’s stable saturated medium-chain triglycerides (vital to cell repair) and its anti-inflammatory effects (important for sores and infection). It is hypoallergenic (not an allergen) and non-comedogenic, too.
Choose an organic, hypoallergenic, first-cold pressed oil like Know-It-Oil (the actual oil my mom uses in her clinical studies) so that you keep as much of the phytochemical content (the good stuff) as possible. Avoid dyes, flavors and allergenic chemicals sometimes used in extraction and processing, particularly in RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized coconut oil).
05 : GAG ME WITH A SPOON?
Not anymore! First, I learned that you don’t have to actively swish the oil in the mouth, which can get exhausting. Just keeping your mouth closed and letting the oil sit there works. Second, I use this trick with my kids in waiting rooms and on myself when I’m crazy lazy to work out: distraction.
Oil pulling to a TV show can distract me for the recommended 20 minutes — especially when I’m binge-watching. Another trick I do regularly is put the bottle of VCO in the shower with me so it melts in the hot water and I can already pour some in my mouth…by the time I’m done bathing, doing my skincare regimen, and changing, I’m close to the 20 minutes anyway. And, I’ve also used it to help me be good about meditation: pour, sit, breathe, set a 20-minute timer.
With the new research on probiotics and my PFAPA, I’m swilling daily now, with VCO and a coconut-derived vinegar from the same farm that grows our organic coconut oil. I don’t have the studies to prove it yet, but this daily gargling plus my major increase in fermented foods (if it’s pickled, I’ll eat it) seems to correlated to a dramatic decrease in my mouth lesions and sinus infections.
My conclusion? Clinical studies specifically on oil pulling still need to be done, but the benefits seem bountiful and the downsides nil. So oil in mouth, grab the remote or a good book, and chill while you swill.
Laura is the CEO of VMV Hypoallergenics and eldest daughter of our founding dermatologist-dermatopathologist. She has two children, Madison and Gavin, and works at VMV with her sister and husband (Madison and Gavin frequently volunteer their “usage testing” services). In addition to saving the world’s skin, Laura is passionate about learning, literature, art, health, science, inclusion, cultural theory, human rights, happiness and goodness.