The latest health fad making the rounds is something called “oil pulling,” an ancient Indian practice in which people cleanse their mouths (and bodies) of toxins by swishing a vegetable oil (such as olive, coconut, or sunflower) in the mouth for 20 minutes and then spitting it out.

It’s ridiculously simple, and, it is claimed, amazingly effective. According to science writer Mike Rothschild’s blog for the Skeptoid podcast, “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.”

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Okay, so maybe swishing a few teaspoons of olive oil isn’t a “life-changing medical miracle.” Other claims are more down-to-earth; according to one proponent, “Oil pulling is an age-old remedy that uses natural substances to clean and detoxify teeth and gums. It has the added effect of whitening teeth naturally and evidence even shows that it is beneficial in improving gums and removing harmful bacteria. The basic idea is that oil is swished in the mouth for a short time each day and that this action helps improve oral health… The practice of oil pulling started in India thousands of years ago.”

The fact that oil pulling has been used for thousand of years (if indeed it has) is asserted as proof of its efficacy but in fact means nothing. This is an example of a logical fallacy called the “appeal to tradition.” Just because a practice has endured for hundreds or thousands of years does not mean it is valid. For nearly 2,000 years, for example, physicians practiced bloodletting, believing that balancing non-existent bodily humors would restore health to sick patients.

The fact that the premise was completely false and absurd made no difference: the patients who died were assumed to have been too sick (and not killed by the bogus medical treatment), and the ones who recovered (despite, not because of, the bloodletting) were convinced the treatment was a miracle cure. It’s the same reason that people believe superstitions; carrying a four-leaf clover or a rabbit’s foot doesn’t actually bring good luck, but people do it anyway.

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So the fact that it’s been used for years doesn’t mean anything. Still, proponents claim, oil pulling can help leach out toxins from the body through the mouth. When you spit the oil out, your body’s toxins go with it. That must be good and important, right? Well, not so fast.

The “Detoxing” Myth

Vegetable oil is not needed to “detoxify teeth and gums” for the simple reason that teeth and gums are not toxic in the first place. Claims of “detoxification” and “cleansing” have been important (and lucrative) for the New Age and alternative medicine industries. The world is full of dangerous toxins, they claim, and in order to get healthy and you need to periodically remove impurities from your body.

“High Colonic Irrigation Colon Cleansing” is said to remove contaminants and detoxify your intestines for “improved health, more active lifestyle, and a more enjoyable, exciting life,” according to one typical Web site. Then there’s the old-fashioned toxin removal method of sweating — though, contrary to popular belief sweating does not actually remove toxins but instead helps regulate body temperature. And let’s not get into a discussion of why coffee doesn’t go in your butt.

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The fact is that the human body does a pretty good job of eliminating toxins on its own, using all-natural organs like the liver and kidneys. Virtually all products claiming to cleanse and detoxify the body are worthless and unnecessary.

So what does oil pulling actually do? Probably nothing. Only a handful of medical studies have been done on the benefits of oil pulling, all of them from India and none of them seeming to show a consistent benefit for any particular condition. There’s nothing wrong with gargling or swishing your mouth out with natural oils (diluted peppermint oil, for example, is a natural antiseptic that will leave your breath nice and fresh). But there’s nothing unique or particularly healthy about swishing oils in your mouth.