Folk healers worldwide have also used it to treat a wide variety of health conditions for thousands of years. For example, the reputed benefits of castor oil goes as far back as the ancient Egyptians, who used it to treat eye irritations and as a powerful natural skin care remedy.
It also has deep roots in India, where it’s considered to be a skin-healing, digestive-soothing, antibacterial ingredient that is utilized in Ayurvedic medicine.
What is castor oil used for today? As explained more below, it has natural stimulant laxative properties; has been shown to boost lymphatic, circulatory and immune health; and can help treat constipation, arthritis and more.
What Is Castor Oil?
Castor oil is a non-volatile fatty oil that is derived from the seeds of the castor bean (Ricinus communis) plant, aka castor seeds. The castor oil plant belongs to the flowering spurge family called Euphorbiaceae and is mainly cultivated in Africa, South America and India (India accounts for over 90% of castor oil exports globally).
Castor is one of the oldest cultivated crops, but interestingly it contributes to only 0.15 percent of the vegetable oil produced in the world each year. This oil is also sometimes called ricinus oil.
It’s very thick with a color that ranges from clear to amber or somewhat green. It’s both used topically on the skin and taken by mouth (it has a mild scent and taste).
Studies suggest that many of castor oil’s benefits come down to its chemical composition. It’s classified as a type of triglyceride fatty acid, and almost 90 percent of its fatty acid content is a specific and rare compound called ricinoleic acid.
Ricinoleic acid is not found in many other plants or substances, making the castor plant unique since it’s a concentrated source.
Aside from its primary constituent, ricinoleic acid, castor oil also contains other beneficial salts and esters that mainly act as skin-conditioning agents. This is why, according to a report published in the International Journal of Toxicology, this oil is used in over 700 cosmetic products and counting.
How It Works
Research studies have found that castor oil contains therapeutic components including fatty acids, flavonoids, phenolic compounds, amino acids, terpenoids and phytosterols. These various compounds give the oil the following properties and potential health benefits:
- Hepatoprotective (ability to prevent damage to the liver)
- Free radical scavenging
Compounds found in castor can help stabilize the texture and consistency of products, which is why castor oil is used in so many cosmetics, hair and skincare treatments.
Reports show that this oil can be safely taken internally. When swallowed, it’s hydrolyzed in the small intestine by pancreatic enzymes, leading to the release of glycerol and ricinoleic acid, along with other beneficial metabolites.
Benefits and Uses
1. Improves Immune Function
One of the major reasons castor oil has strong immune-enhancing effects is because it supports the body’s lymphatic system. The most significant role of the lymphatic system, which is spread throughout the whole body in small tubular structures, is that it absorbs and removes excess fluids, proteins and waste materials from our cells.
Castor oil may be able to help improve lymphatic drainage, blood flow, thymus gland health and other immune system functions.
For this reason, the oil and other parts of the castor plant have been used in traditional systems of medicine for the following health conditions:
- Abdominal disorders
- Muscle aches
- Parasitic infections
- Chronic headaches
- Gallbladder pain
- Sleep problems like insomnia
A small, double-blind study published in the Journal of Naturopathic Medicine found that adults who used abdominal castor oil packs on their abdomens had significant increases in the production of lymphocytes compared with patients using placebo packs. Lymphocytes are the immune system’s natural “disease-fighters” that attack outside invaders such as toxins, bacteria and other perceived threats.
The lymphatic system also impacts the circulatory and digestive systems, which is why the oil is sometimes used to support heart health and resolve issues like constipation.
2. Boosts Circulation
A healthy lymphatic system and proper blood flow go hand in hand. When the lymphatic system fails (or edema develops, which is the retention of fluid and toxins), it’s much more likely someone will have circulatory issues.
This is due to the fact that the lymphatic circulatory system works directly with the cardiovascular circulatory system to keep blood and lymphatic fluid levels in an optimal balance.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “A growing body of evidence reveals that the lymphatic system influences the health of multiple organs, including the heart, lung, and brain.” So castor’s oil ability to positively affect our lymphatic systems likely means better overall circulation and a health boost to major organs like our hearts.
3. Moisturizes Skin and Boosts Wound Healing
Castor oil is completely natural and free of synthetic chemicals (as long as you use pure 100 percent pure oil, of course), yet it’s rich in skin-boosting ingredients like fatty acids.
Applying this oil to dry or irritated skin can help to discourage dryness and keep it well moisturized, since it prevents water loss.
It can also help with wound and pressure ulcer healing thanks to its moisturizing as well as antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. It mixes well with other ingredients like almond, olive and coconut oil, all of which have unique benefits for skin.
Lab studies have shown that castor oil is effective against many types of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Out of all the staphylococcal bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus is considered the most dangerous and can cause mild to serious skin infections and other concerning staph infection symptoms.
4. Can Help Induce Labor
Castor oil is a time-honored natural remedy for inducing labor. For centuries, pregnant women at full term have taken it orally to help speed up uterus contractions.
In fact, it’s one of the most popular substances taken in a non-medical setting to induce labor.
According to studies, the reason castor oil can work to induce labor is due to the fact that the ricinoleic acid in the oil can activate EP3 prostanoid receptors in the uterus. Some animal studies have shown that active compounds in the oil attach to the molecules that makes muscles — in both the intestines and uterus — contract.
A 2018 observational case control study found that “The use of castor oil is related to a higher probability of labor initiation within 24 hours. Castor oil can be considered a safe non-pharmacological method for labor induction.”
In addition, the full-term women study subjects (between 40 and 41 weeks) who took castor oil had a lower incidence of Caesarean section.
One downside of using castor oil to help with delivery (and the reason it’s not commonly used in hospitals) is that some women feel nauseated after taking it.
5. Helps Dry, Irritated, Sun-Burnt or Acne-Prone Skin
As a natural antibacterial agent, castor oil works similarly to coconut oil for boosting skin health. It also makes a great general skin moisturizer and anti-inflammatory blemish treatment.
If you want to get rid of acne forever, you need to get to the source of the problem. Castor oil is a great natural home remedy for acne.
As it penetrates deep into the skin, it fights bacteria overgrowth that can clog pores, while softening and hydrating irritated skin at the same time.
As mentioned earlier, this oil has been shown to fight off Staphylococcus aureus, which is linked to development of acne.
6. Acts as a Laxative to Relieve Constipation
Castor oil works like a natural, mild stimulant laxative when taken orally. It can help to treat constipation, reduce straining during defecation and enhance the feeling of complete evacuation after a bowel movement.
Its active ingredient, ricinoleic acid, gets released into the intestine, where it helps with the process of digestion, nutrient absorption and cleansing the system. It increases movement of the muscles that push material through the intestines, helping to pass a bowel movement.
One study conducted in Turkey looked at the effects of castor oil packs on elderly people experiencing constipation. The study participants were monitored for a week before, three days during and four days after the oil pack administration.
A whopping 80 percent of the individuals studied had been experiencing constipation for 10 years or longer. The researchers found that the oil packs were able to decrease constipation symptoms, most specifically straining during defecation.
7. Lowers Symptoms of Arthritis
Castor oil is often used as a natural treatment for arthritis pain, joint swelling and inflammation.
It has natural anti-inflammatory properties that make it an ideal massage oil that can be applied to aching joints, muscles or tissue. Observational studies have even shown that topical application of ricinoleic acid (the main component of castor oil), “exerts remarkable analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects.”
A randomized, double-blind, comparative clinical study looked at the effects of castor oil capsules on symptoms of knee osteoarthritis.
Subjects were either given a castor oil capsule (0.9 milliliters) three times daily for four weeks or a capsule of diclofenac sodium (50 milligrams) for the same amount of time. Overall, they found that castor oil worked as well as conventional treatment and can be used as “an effective therapy in primary knee osteoarthritis.”
8. Helps to Encourage Strong, Shiny Hair
What does castor oil do for your hair? Just like coconut oil benefits your hair, using castor oil may help your hair grow faster, thicker, stronger and shinier.
It can detangle hair as well and is even used to treat hair felting (a disorder in which hair becomes twisted and entangled as a hard stony mass).
Does castor oil regrow hair? Because it can improve blood circulation to your follicles, it may help to speed up hair growth.
This is why some people apply it not only to hair on their head, but also to eyebrows and eyelashes.
Studies suggest that ricinoleic acid may treat hair loss by balancing prostaglandin D2 (PGD2) production in men, which affects hair growth.
9. May Support Eye Health
While Egyptian doctors are said to have employed castor oil in order to protect the eyes from irritation, not all experts today encourage the use of castor oil in place of eye drops.
For example, on the American Academy of Ophthalmology website, Richard G. Shugarman, MD, a comprehensive ophthalmologist, responds to a question about the safety of putting it in the eyes by saying:
“I currently do not recommend the use of any non-sterile materials in the eye. Many years ago, when sterile products were not commercially available, I used room temperature castor oil to treat exposure keratopathy, severe dry eyes and recurrent erosions. See an ophthalmologist, as I suspect that safer products made specifically for your condition are readily available.”
That being sad, some studies have found that this oil can modify the tear film lipid layer and increase stability in people with dry eyes. It seems to work as a result of lipid spreading, ease of meibum expression, prevention of tear evaporation and due to its lubricating effects.
Several commercial eye drops today even include castor oil as one of their active ingredients.
Additionally, while more formal research is needed to show that its safe and effective for this purpose, some naturopaths now use castor oil (usually in addition to other treatments) to help improve visual acuity and correct cataracts, the leading cause of blindness in the world.
Castor oil can be used in several ways: orally (taken by mouth), applied topically on the skin, applied to the hair, or massaged into the skin in the form of a castor oil pack.
Remember, any oil you ingest or consume (and even the kinds you apply directly to your skin) should really be of the highest quality to ensure safety and effectiveness.
Where can you buy castor oil products? Ideally look for a reputable brand of cold-pressed, pure, organic castor oil at your local health food store, or online if you can’t find it in stores.
Brand names for this product include Fleet Castor Oil and Emulsoil.
To make your own castor oil pack:
Some people believe that the most effective use of castor oil is castor oil packs or poultices. These might be able to help increase topical absorption through the skin’s pores.
You can make your own easily, or purchase a pre-made kit.
To make your own pack you’ll need a bottle of castor oil and a soft piece of fabric, such as flannel that can be found in health stores and online.
- To make your own pack, saturate a piece of flannel and place it over your abdomen or other painful areas. It takes approximately 3–4 ounces of castor oil to make one pack the size of a washcloth or small hand towel.
- Wrap castor oil cloth around any painful area. Cover the oiled cloth with another hand towel or a plastic wrap to prevent oil getting on clothes or furniture.
- You may want to also apply heat to support absorption.
- Let the pack sit for one hour or more.
- You can also massage the oil into any area where soothing is desired.
Here are some of the most common types of castor oils you may find in stores:
- Cold-pressed castor oil — This type is produced by cold-pressing the castor bean seeds to extract their natural oil content. This results in a high quality product that is recommended for internal use. You may also want to check that the oil is pesticide-free, paraben-free, phthalate-free and free of artificial color or fragrances.
- Yellow castor oil — This type is made from the castor bean, usually through pressing with no heat involved, although some manufacturers use chemicals in their processing. Generally speaking, the lighter color the oil is, the “purer” the product is.
- Jamaican black castor oil — This oil is developed by first roasting the castor beans, which results in a dark color (and burnt smell). This is the method that is traditionally used in Jamaica. Ash found in this type results in a higher pH (alkaline) product that is believed to have more clarifying properties that may help open pores.
Dosage and How To Use
The dosage of castor oil taken internally depends on what you’re using it for, along with factors like your age, existing medical conditions and response to laxative-type treatments.
If taking castor oil orally, a commonly recommended dose for adults (such as to treat constipation) is 15–60 mL, taken in one single dose. This is equivalent to about one to four teaspoons once per day.
Many people mix it with water or another beverage before drinking.
Children between 2–12 years should take 5–15 mL orally once daily, while babies under 2 years old should take no more than 5 mL once daily.
Read package directions carefully before using castor oil or a castor oil pack kit. Be careful not to increase your dose above the recommended amount, start slowly and don’t take it for more than seven days consecutively, unless you’re told to do so by your doctor.
Dosages can vary by age, health status and your individual response to taking the oil. This amount is typically useful for regulating bowel movements.
However, before giving it to children or taking it longer than a week check with your doctor.
A common warning is to not use castor oil for more than a week since side effects can be serious with overuse.
Beware that castor oil can work for constipation relief quite fast so it’s not recommended to take it before bed. For many people, taking it causes a bowel movement to occur within two to three hours, but it can take up to six hours.
Always read product labels carefully and talk to your doctor if you’re not sure about the best dosage.
Here are several ways to use this product topically to improve skin health:
- Natural acne treatment: Dap castor oil onto the affected area with a clean cotton swab. You can also try to use apple cider vinegar and essential oils like frankincense mixed with a small amount of pure coconut oil. All of these options reduce redness and swelling of acne blemishes along with scarring and pain.
- Prevent future breakouts: Wash your face first in warm water to open up the pores and then massage some of the oil into your face and leave it on overnight, rinsing the next morning. If leaving the oil on your face overnight causes greasiness, reduce the amount of time until you rinse it off.
- Hydrate skin without clogging pores: Mix 1/4 cup of castor oil and 3/4 cup virgin coconut oil (or 3/4 cup sesame oil), then apply to your body and face.
- Moisturize normal or oily skin: Try using 1/4 cup of castor oil with jojoba oil, grapeseed oil or olive oil instead of coconut and sesame oils. Gently massage dry areas of your skin with the mixture, then dab off any excess using a clean towel. Allow the treatment to soak in overnight and then rinse well in the morning with warm water. Another option is creating a fast-acting face mask using one teaspoon of castor oil along with one egg yolk. Apply the mixture to your face for 10–15 minutes, then clean your face.
- Soothe a sunburn: Castors oil’s anti-inflammatory properties reduce pain and redness. Apply castor oil mixed with coconut oil (in a 1:1 proportion) to the affected area, or try the same remedy as a natural lip balm to solve chapped or sunburnt lips.
Something else to consider is that castor oil and ricinoleic acid can enhance the transdermal penetration of other chemicals, so it’s a good idea to only use castor oil along with other natural ingredients that you don’t mind fully absorbing into your skin.
Here’s how to use castor oil for various other purposes:
- Laxative (for constipation): 15 to 60 mL taken once daily by mouth, typically in liquid form.
- Hair growth: Use castor oil for hair health by massaging several tablespoons slightly warmed-up oil into your hair and scalp. You can try making a homemade hair mask by massaging the oil into your roots and spreading it all over your hair, tying up your hair and covering it with a cap, then leaving the oil on overnight before washing it out.
- Eyebrows: Use a cotton swab or clean mascara wand to wipe a small amount of oil over clean eyebrows. Let it absorb it for 20 minutes or longer. You may want to apply the oil before bed so it seeps in while you sleep. Because the oil can irritate some people’s eyes, applying it to your eyelashes should be done with caution. Use a Q-tip to carefully do this.
- Induce labor (be sure to speak with your doctor first): In most studies where labor was successfully induced, women have received 60 mL of the oil, sometimes mixed with orange juice to mask the taste and reduce nausea.
- Help reduce joint pain: The oil can be applied like any other over the counter analgesic (pain relieving) cream and massaged into tense areas. Apply about a dime sized amount for every three hours or until pain subsides. Repeat every day for three days for best results.
Risks and Side Effects
Castor oil is classified by the Food and Drug Administration as generally recognized as safe for both topical and internal use. However drinking castor oil may still potentially cause side effects.
Side effects can include:
- abdominal cramping
- diarrhea, especially when used in large amounts
Castor oil falls into category X for pregnant women, so if you’re pregnant you should not take it to induce labor without speaking to your doctor first. You also avoid using it to relieve constipation during pregnancy.
Allergic reactions to castor oil (used topically or internally) are possible, so seek emergency medical care if you believe you are having a serious allergic reaction.
When using castor oil topically, it’s still best to start slowly and perform a skin patch test on a small area of your skin before applying larger amounts, and also keep it away from your eyes, inside of your nose, children and pets.
Can castor oil kill you? Taking too much castor oil internally is definitely a risk and can cause digestive issues like diarrhea or cramping, along other problems.
Some people experience nausea and signs of mild irritation in their gut lining when taking castor oil. That said, it’s very unlikely to cause severe reactions as long as someone is not allergic and doesn’t overdose.
If you’re currently taking medication or have any medical condition, always speak with your doctor before using castor oil.
Tell your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following side effects after ingesting castor oil: persistent nausea/vomiting/diarrhea, muscle cramps/weakness, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, decreased urination, mental/mood changes (such as confusion) or rectal bleeding.
- What is castor oil? Castor oil is a non-volatile fatty oil that is derived from the seeds of the castor bean (Ricinus communis) plant.
- It can be used topically and also taken internally in small amounts, for a short duration of time.
- Benefits of castor oil uses include: treating constipation, helping with wound healing, preventing skin ulcers, moisturizing dry skin, reducing joint/arthritis pain, and naturally inducing labor.
- Benefits for hair include aiding in growth, fighting scalp infections, and making hair shinier.