To a grown adult, the navel is the reminder of where they were attached to their mother by the umbilical cord, a mark that can vary from person to person. But on TikTok, the belly button isn’t just a scar everyone has. It’s the starting point for the app’s next viral health trend: navel pulling, also known as navel oiling.
While the practice has several different names online, the treatment itself is rather straightforward. Based on Ayurvedic methods, a historic medical system from India, navel oiling involves pouring different kinds of oil into the belly button, and leaving it there for several minutes before rubbing it into the skin and surrounding abdomen. While not a new phenomenon, Google Trends shows interest in the practice has increased by 300 percent in the past three months. And on TikTok, videos associated with the hashtag navel oiling (including with the spelling “naval” oiling) have over 11.5 million views. But health influencers aren’t promoting navel oiling as a stress reducer. They’re selling it to their followers as the next great cure — and making wild health claims in the process.
Ayurvedic medicine is a holistic approach to health that takes into account sleep, stress, diet, exercise, and mood. While there are few accepted studies proving the efficacy of Ayurvedic treatments, both the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and other major medical organizations acknowledge that many Ayurvedic practices have been shown anecdotally to improve quality of life, and in some cases reduce pain from chronic issues. What studies haven’t shown is that Ayurvedic medicine can treat hernias, cysts, fibroids, or endometriosis — all claims that have spread on TikTok. One video from a holistic influencer calls navel oiling everything from a treatment for endometriosis to an immune booster. It’s been viewed 4.3 million times. Another TikTok user claims she lost over 14 pounds after seven weeks of navel oiling, and encourages her 40,000 followers to purchase the oil from her affiliate link. (Neither responded to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
Many of the videos promoting navel oiling as a miracle therapy cite a figure that the belly button has over 70,000 veins that extend from it throughout the body. But according to gastroenterologist Dr. Rabia De Latour, that’s just not true.
“The belly button is just a stump where your umbilical cord was. There’s a really simple set of vessels that basically allowed a fetus — all of us when we were in our mother’s bellies — to be nourished and given nutrition and oxygen, “De Latour says. “The umbilical cord has three blood vessels, one vein, and two arteries.”
Dr. Jen Caudle, a board-certified family physician tells Rolling Stone that as a practice with minimal risk, navel oiling might help people reduce their stress, but there’s no evidence to suggest it can actually treat the above maladies.
“A lot of therapies that we’re seeing now may be considered alternative or complementary. Many of them have a cultural basis, whether it’s a group of people, a race, a country, a time, a religion, and it is actually very important to respect the origins of many of these practices,” Caudle says. “There’s a lot of claims about what castor oil in the belly button can do, but I’m not familiar with any evidence that suggests that that’s the case.”
Wellness has long been a major aspect of TikTok content, but the rise in navel oiling’s popularity isn’t rooted in a new interest in ayurvedic medicine. Rather, it’s targeting a specific loophole in TikTok’s Community Guidelines. Following the launch of TikTok Shop, an in-app shopping feature that gives creators a cut of the products they promote, there’s been tension between TikTok’s guidelines prohibiting the sale of medicines and what creators are willing to say to sell their products. As selling oils meant for external use or skincare isn’t prohibited, the rising interest in navel oiling technically abides by the letter of the law, but allows for wild mischaracterizations in the process.
“I really think that this entire methodology of practicing healthcare and healing has been appropriated by people who have no knowledge, no family background, nothing to support their claims,” De Latour says.
Caudle also notes that while belly button oiling is harmless, as more and more health trends go viral online, it’s important for consumers to speak to their doctors before they try adding things to their medical regimens.
“With supplements or other practices, sometimes people don’t realize ‘Oh, that could actually interact with my blood thinner.’ Wow, I’ve seen people overdose on vitamin D. I’ve seen people have their [blood clot] levels spike up because of things they’re taking,” Caudle says. “A lot of people say doctors don’t know anything about natural complementary medicine. There’s still a lot we need to know, I agree. But we can certainly help guide you about the medications that you’re on. We certainly have a lot of sense about that. So, you know, talking to your doctor is really really important.”