In literature and historical references, castor oil has been used to symbolize an unpleasant or even comical experience. Stories abound of children in the old days holding their noses as they reluctantly swallowed spoonfuls of Castor Oil that grandmas believed could magically cure all manner of ailments, from tummy troubles to minor scrapes to eye irritations.
Many folk remedies, passed down through the ages, have proven their value in modern healthcare. While there is renewed interest in Castor Oil as a cure-all, based on scientific evidence, claims of its broad healing powers are greatly exaggerated. If you’ve wondered whether you should subject yourself to Castor Oil's noxious taste and odor for your well-being, read on to learn what it can and cannot do for your health.
What is Castor Oil?
Castor Oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the seeds (beans) of the castor plant (Ricinus communis), native to tropical regions of Africa and Asia but also cultivated in other warm climate areas. Castor Oil has been used across many centuries and cultures, dating back to ancient Egypt, where Castor Oil was mentioned in the famous Ebers Papyrus as a laxative and skin care agent. In traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, Castor Oil was employed to support regular bowel movements, skin health, and numerous other health complaints. During the Middle Ages, Europeans adopted it as a multipurpose cure-all. It was later introduced to the Americas and gained popularity in folk medicine traditions before becoming an over-the-counter laxative in the 20th century.
Castor beans are known for their high concentration of ricinoleic acid, a type of fatty acid that comprises around 90% of castor oil's chemical composition. Ricinoleic acid gives Castor Oil its distinct health properties and potential benefits.
It’s important to note that while processed castor oil may have health benefits, the castor bean contains Ricin and should never be chewed and swallowed. Ricin is a highly toxic substance that can be lethal in small doses. Ricin is contained in the waste “mash” that is left after Castor Oil has been extracted from the castor bean and does not affect processed Castor Oil.
Castor Oil is formulated in a series of steps:
- Seed Harvesting: Seeds are harvested from the plant's seed pods once matured.
- Seed Cleaning: After harvesting, the seeds are cleaned to remove dirt, debris, or plant material.
- Seed Extraction: The oil is extracted from the castor seeds through a process called cold pressing, which involves pressing the oil straight from the castor seeds using heavy rollers or presses without applying heat. Cold pressing allows the oil to retain more of its natural chemical composition compared to heat processing.
- Filtering: The extracted oil is then typically filtered to remove any remaining impurities and solids, resulting in a clear and smooth oil.
- Refining: Depending on the desired purity and application, the castor oil might undergo further refining to remove any remaining traces of impurities, odor, or color. This can result in a more refined and odorless product, commonly known as refined castor oil.
There are different grades of Castor Oil available on the market, each with varying levels of refinement. When formulating Castor Oil-based products, manufacturers might also blend it with other oils, additives, or ingredients to create specific formulations tailored to different applications, such as skin or hair care products.
Supported Use of Castor Oil: Constipation
Numerous studies have proven Castor Oil to be a laxative for relieving constipation. Its active ingredient, ricinoleic acid, works by stimulating intestinal contractions to promote bowel movements. The oil's laxative effect is fast-acting. It’s FDA-approved only for over-the-counter use as a laxative.
While Castor Oil is safe when used properly, it can also induce cramping and diarrhea. For this reason, many healthcare providers recommend alternatives that are gentler to the digestive system.
Unsupported or Unsafe Uses of Castor Oil
If you spend time on social media, you may have read posts or watched videos that claim Castor Oil can work all kinds of miracles. While there is anecdotal evidence that it may help support various health issues, there is little scientific research to support its use for the following:
- Inducing labor: While Castor Oil has been used historically to stimulate labor in pregnant women, clinical studies are inconclusive on its effectiveness. A few trials found Castor Oil may help induce cervical dilation, but there is no evidence it triggers active labor or contractions. Due to risks like diarrhea, dehydration, and fetal distress, it’s not recommended for inducing labor. More research is needed to establish its efficacy and safety.
- Supporting skin and hair health: Castor Oil has been included in skincare and haircare products because of its moisturizing properties and high ricinoleic acid content. It’s been used in lotions, creams, and hair serums with the belief that it will hydrate the skin, improve hair texture, prevent baldness, and promote hair growth. While there is some anecdotal evidence to support these claims, science has yet to substantiate them.
- Eye health: Claims that Castor Oil can improve vision or help your eyelashes grow are unsubstantiated. In fact, Castor Oil has been known to irritate the eyes and could cause allergic reactions. It is, therefore, not recommended for use on or near the eyes.
- Supporting a healthy inflammatory response: There is limited evidence that, when used topically, Castor Oil packs may help manage minor pain. However, research is limited, and the effects that have been chronicled appear mild and temporary.
The many unsupported claims surrounding the use of Castor Oil as a cure-all should be approached with skepticism. Consult your healthcare professional if you’re considering using Castor Oil for unsupported uses.
Castor Oil’s Potential Side Effects
Using castor oil, whether applied topically or taken internally, can have potential side effects. While it is considered safe to use as a laxative, if you follow recommended dosages, you may still experience adverse reactions. These include:
- Gastrointestinal distress: Ingesting Castor Oil can lead to nausea, cramps, vomiting, bloating, diarrhea, and dizziness. The strong laxative effect can cause rapid and forceful bowel movements, which may result in discomfort and dehydration.
- Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance: Excessive use of Castor Oil as a laxative can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances due to fluid loss. This is a particular concern for individuals who are vulnerable to these conditions, such as the elderly, children, or individuals with certain medical conditions.
- Skin irritation: Some individuals may experience skin irritation or allergic reactions when castor oil is applied topically. It's advisable to perform a patch test before using it on a larger area of skin, especially if you have sensitive skin or a history of allergies.
- Uterine contractions (during pregnancy): Castor Oil has historically been used to induce labor. However, this practice is now discouraged by medical professionals due to concerns about safety. It can lead to strong uterine contractions, potentially posing risks to both the mother and baby.
- Eye irritation: Extreme care should be taken when using Castor Oil around the eyes, as it can cause irritation and discomfort. Avoid direct contact with the eyes; if accidental contact occurs, rinse thoroughly with water.
- Acute hair felting: When used on long hair, Castor Oil can lead to a rare condition where the hair becomes tangled and twisted and can’t be treated except by cutting it off.REF#2864
- Potential allergic reactions: While rare, some individuals may be allergic to Castor Oil and can experience severe allergic reactions when exposed to it.
When you use Castor Oil appropriately and/or under medical supervision, the risks of side effects are low. However, there are many safe alternatives to consider when supporting your health naturally.
- 1. , "Castor Oil – The Culprit of Acute Hair Felting", Internation Journal of Trichology. 1 1. , "Castor Oil – The Culprit of Acute Hair Felting", Internation Journal of Trichology.