The Health Benefits of Castor Oil

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on September 20, 2023
5 min read

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 likely used as fuel for lamps as well as for medicinal and beauty purposes. Cleopatra reportedly used it to brighten the whites of her eyes.

Today, most is produced in India. It's still used as a laxative and in skin and hair products. It's also an ingredient in motor oil, among other things. The FDA says it's safe for treating constipation, but researchers are still investigating its other potential health benefits.  

 

Castor oil isn't considered an edible oil, and it has a very unpleasant taste. But some people take small amounts by mouth for medicinal reasons. 

According to MyFitnessPal, a tablespoon contains: 

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

Castor oil also has some: 

  • Vitamin E
  • Omega-9 fatty acids
  • Omega-6 fatty acids

The active ingredient in castor oil is a fatty acid called ricinoleic acid.

There’s been little research into most of the traditional health uses of this oil. But some of its potential health benefits include:

Castor oil for constipation

The only FDA-approved health use for castor oil is as a natural laxative to relieve temporary constipation

Its ricinoleic acid attaches to a receptor in your intestines. This causes the muscles to contract, pushing poop through your colon. 

It's also sometimes used for cleansing your colon before a procedure like a colonoscopy. But your doctor can prescribe other laxatives that could give better results. 

Don't use it for long-term constipation relief because you could have side effects like cramps and bloating. Tell your doctor if your constipation lasts more than a few days. 

Castor oil to induce labor

It’s been used for centuries to help during labor and delivery. In fact, a survey from 1999 found that 93% of midwives in the U.S. used it to induce labor. But while some studies have shown it might help, others have not found it to be effective. If you’re pregnant, don't try castor oil without talking to your doctor.

Anti-inflammatory effects

Research in animals shows that ricinoleic acid may help fight swelling and pain caused by inflammation when applied to your skin. One study in people found it was as effective at treating symptoms of knee arthritis as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). 

But we need much more research into this. 

May help heal wounds

Castor oil has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that may help speed wound healing, especially when it's combined with other ingredients. Venelex, which contains castor oil and balsam Peru, is an ointment used to treat skin and pressure wounds.

The oil may help to prevent infection by keeping the wounds moist, while the ricinoleic acid reduces inflammation. 

Don't use castor oil on minor cuts or burns at home. It's recommended for wound care only in doctor's offices and hospitals.

Castor oil benefits for skin

Because it's rich in fatty acids, castor oil has moisturizing effects. You can find it in many commercial beauty products. You can also use it in its natural form, which is free of perfumes and dyes. Because it can be irritating to skin, try diluting it with another neutral oil.

Some people think castor oil's antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and moisturizing effects could help fight acne. But there's no research evidence to back this up.

Castor oil for hair growth

Castor oil is sometimes marketed as a treatment for dry scalp, hair growth, and dandruff. It may moisturize your scalp and hair. But there's no science to back up claims that it treats dandruff or promotes hair growth.

In fact, using castor oil in your hair could cause a rare condition called felting, which is when your hair becomes so tangled it has to be cut off.

Are there benefits to putting castor oil in your belly button?

This idea is based on an Ayurvedic treatment that suggests a Pechoti gland near your naval can absorb things like essential oils through your belly button. But there's no scientific evidence that this gland exists. So there's likely no advantage to putting castor oil in your belly button. But it probably won't hurt you,  either.

Some people use castor oil packs as remedies for constipation, dry skin, arthritis, or period cramps. 

These are pieces of fabric, usually cotton or wool, soaked in castor oil. You apply them to your skin, with or without a heating pad. You can make your own or buy them. 

While a heated pad might feel soothing, there’s not much research to support the benefits of castor oil packs. 

While castor beans contain a poison called ricin, this toxin is removed during processing of castor oil. But there are some health risks linked its use:

Allergic reaction

If you're allergic to the castor plant, you could have itching, swelling, or rashes if you apply the oil to your skin. Test a small spot before you use it.

Gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort

Castor oil can help relieve constipation. But it can cause nausea, abdominal cramping, vomiting, bloating, and dizziness if you take too much. Always talk to your doctor before you use it.  

Pregnancy concerns

If you're pregnant, avoid using it. It may induce labor. We don't have enough research to know whether it's safe to use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. It's not clear whether it's safe for infants or children, either. 

Medication interactions

When you use castor oil for constipation, take it several hours before or after you take any other medications. Laxatives can change how other drugs work. Don't combine it with any other laxatives or diuretics.

Overdose

If you take too much castor oil, it can cause abdominal cramps, chest pain, diarrhea, dizziness, rash, and shortness of breath. Call poison control or your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

Toxic to pets

Castor oil isn't as toxic to animals as raw castor beans. But if your pet swallows a lot of castor oil, contact your vet immediately to see if they need emergency treatment.

Castor oil has been used for centuries to treat constipation and may be a good natural moisturizer for your skin and scalp. But there's not much scientific evidence for other possible health benefits. Talk to your doctor before you take it. 

Can I use castor oil as lube?

According to Women’s Health Interactive, it can be safe for some couples, but it's not ideal for everybody. The oil can break down latex or polyisoprene condoms, dental dams, and diaphragms, for example. 

Can I drink castor oil every day?

Castor oil is approved by the FDA as a temporary treatment for constipation, but it isn't suitable for long-term use.