Castor Oil: Are There Health Benefits?

Castor oil is a thick, odorless oil made from the seeds of the castor plant. Its use dates back to ancient Egypt, where it was first used as lamp fuel and later for medicinal and beauty treatments — Cleopatra reportedly believed the oil would brighten the whites of her eyes.

Today, most of the world’s castor oil is produced in India. Modern research backs up some of its traditional uses, including laxative effects, anti-inflammatory properties, and the ability to help induce labor

While studies continue to investigate other potential health benefits, castor oil is considered safe if used as directed, and can be found in a range of skin and hair care products sold today. Pure castor oil is also available at many specialty health stores. 

You can put the oil directly on your skin or take it orally in small amounts. Some people also make castor “oil packs.” Castor oil packs are made of cloth that is soaked in castor oil and applied to affected areas. Because of its potency, castor oil is not used in cooking or added to food. 

Nutrition Information

A one-tablespoon serving of castor oil contains: 

  • Calories: 120
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Fat: 14 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams

Castor oil is a good source of: 

More than 90% of castor oil’s fatty acid content is ricinoleic acid. Research shows that this omega-9 has pain relief and anti-inflammatory effects. When applied to the skin may help relieve issues like joint pain and menstrual cramps.

Potential Health Benefits of Castor Oil

Castor oil is a common ingredient in many beauty products. It’s rich in essential fatty acids that moisturize the skin, and research continues to study how their properties may be effective in treating common skin conditions. 

Castor oil has also been used to help pregnant women with delivery for centuries. In fact, a survey from 1999 found that 93% of midwives in the U.S. used castor oil to induce labor. While further research is needed, one study found that castor oil initiated labor in 91% of women with little to no childbirth complications

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Other potential health benefits associated with castor oil include: 

Laxative Properties

One of castor oil’s most traditional uses is to stimulate digestion, relieving temporary constipation. Modern research has found that this effect is due to the oil’s high levels of ricinoleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid that acts as a natural laxative. 

Anti-Inflammatory Effects

Studies show that castor oil’s ricinoleic acid reduces swelling and pain caused by inflammation. Research suggests that, when applied to the skin, castor oil may reduce arthritis symptoms more effectively than prescription topical treatments. More studies are needed to confirm this effect in humans.

May Heal Wounds

Castor oil’s fatty acids are natural humectants, substances used to moisturize the skin by preventing water loss. This effect can promote good skin health, relieve dryness, and soothe skin inflammation.

It may also have the potential to accelerate wound healing. Castor oil is a triglyceride that has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Research shows that, when applied to the skin, it may prevent infection, reduce inflammation, improve localized blood flow, and shed damaged skin cells — all of which help skin's healing process.

Treats Some Skin Conditions

Castor oil can benefit overall skin health, but may treat specific skin conditions as well. Though there’s a lack of clinical research, its combination of antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and moisturizing effects is thought to help treat some causes of acne. One study showed that castor oil also fights fungal infections, which may help relieve hard-to-treat fungal acne

Other studies have found castor oil helpful in the treatment of melasma, dandruff, and ringworm

Potential Risks of Castor Oil

When applied to the skin, castor oil is considered safe for most people to use. However, its dermatological effects are still being studied, so be sure to follow your doctor’s advice when treating any skin conditions.

If you take it internally, castor oil’s potent fatty acids can pose health risks. Castor oil is a powerful laxative. It is recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a way to relieve temporary constipation, but it isn’t suitable for long-term treatment. Use castor oil in small amounts and be sure to consult with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you.    

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Some health risks associated with castor oil use include:

Allergies

Some people may be allergic to the castor plant and experience itching, swelling, or rashes when using castor oil.

Physical Discomfort

Ingesting too much castor oil can cause nausea, cramps, dizziness, and muscle weakness. Use it as advised by your doctor and don’t take it on an empty stomach. 

Pregnancy Concerns

Because castor oil may help induce labor, pregnant women should avoid it. There is also a lack of research on its effects on infants, children, and breastfeeding women. 

Medication Interactions

If taken with diuretics, adrenal corticosteroids, or licorice root, castor oil may reduce the potassium content in your body to dangerously low levels.

Overdose

Taken orally, large amounts of castor oil can be poisonous. Symptoms of overdose include abdominal cramps, chest pain, and shortness of breath. Use castor oil as directed to avoid unintentional overdose. 

Digestive System Damage

Long-term laxative use can cause damage to your digestive system and can even cause electrolyte abnormalities or dehydration. While castor oil can provide occasional constipation relief, you should talk to your doctor to discuss treatment options before consuming it. 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 30, 2020

Sources

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