You may have heard of castor oil as a natural beauty treatment for thicker hair, to DIY cleaning supplies at home, or even as an old wive’s tale to induce labor. But the oil is gaining more and more popularity for health benefits too, from liver detoxification to relief from period cramps. This multipurpose oil—which can be purchased over the counter at most drug stores or grocery stores—has been used as a natural remedy for centuries. According to Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and the creator of the Candida Diet, castor oil is a vegetable oil derived from the seeds of the castor plant, which has a long history of use for various purposes, including skincare, haircare, and medicinal applications. Castor oil is also the latest health hack to get the viral treatment on social media.
While the buzz around castor oil on #HealthTok is undeniable, we spoke to experts to figure out whether or not it could truly live up to its internet hype and long-standing history. Read on to find out what castor oil can be used for and whether or not it deserves a spot in your wellness routine.
The origin of castor oil
Castor oil has a complex history because it has been used through both Western medicine and more ancient traditions such as TCM and Ayurveda. “Ayurvedic medicine has always used castor oil as a digestive remedy, which we know as being incredibly important for the body’s natural detoxification process,” explained Janine Leigh, an integrative therapist and holistic health practitioner. “It became Westernized into castor oil packs, ultimately finding its way into both conventional and non-conventional settings.”
“Long before the contemporary recognition of castor oil’s benefits, it was a cornerstone in ancient health practices,” affirmed Dr. Naheed Ali MD, a physician and holistic health educator. “The Ayurvedic tradition of India, spanning over 5,000 years, has revered castor oil for its detoxifying and balancing properties. Meanwhile, ancient Egyptian civilizations utilized it for a plethora of treatments, and Native American tribes also recognized its potential therapeutic effects.”
Can castor oil really…
Even though it has been reported to help lipid metabolization, antimicrobial activity, detoxification, hormonal health, and more, castor oil is only approved by the FDA for one medicinal use: a laxative. “When taken orally, castor oil is known for its laxative effect,” Leigh explains. With multiple doctors, studies, and an FDA seal of approval to back it up, it seems widely accepted that castor oil can help with symptoms of constipation because of its stimulating effect that gets things moving (BTW, Leigh cited the same stimulating effect to get bowel moving is also the reason it’s used as an alternative remedy to help stimulate contractions to induce labor). Any herbs, supplements, or medicine with a laxative effect are not intended to be taken on a regular basis—too much of a laxative effect can cause dehydration or lack of nutrient absorption—but a small dose of castor oil can help if you’re abnormally constipated. Of course, always discuss this with your doctor first.
Alleviate period cramps?
The medicinal benefits of castor oil have not only been received through taking it orally. Castor oil packs (pieces of cloth soaked in castor oil and applied to the skin for topical use) have been used in practices such as traditional Chinese medicine and as an at-home remedy popular in The United States in the early and mid-1900s to ease period cramps. So, does it work? “Castor oil’s anti-inflammatory properties may help relax the uterine muscles, easing the pain associated with menstrual cramps,” Dr. Ali explained. Amy Colo CPM, LMT, a midwife and certified practitioner of Maya Abdominal Therapy, wrote that regular use of Castor oil packs can relieve painful periods and support fertility, due to its ability to increase blood circulation and reduce inflammation.
However, not every expert I spoke with agreed that castor oil was a miracle for cramps. “I emphasize the importance of caution; castor oil packs during menstruation might increase bleeding, particularly in individuals with heavy periods,” warned Dr. Laila Kaikavoosi, founder and clinical director of Online Menopause Center and Board-Certified member of the American Academy of Antiaging and Regenerative Medicine “While some may find relief with castor oil, it may not work the same way for everyone.” Dr. Kaikavoosi recommended trying lifestyle changes and other treatments to ease period cramps instead, especially if you have a history of heavy bleeding. Bottom line: Castor oil packs have helped many people (for many centuries) with period cramps, but that doesn’t mean they will work for everyone. Always discuss with your doctor before trying any new treatment to identify if it is right for you.
Detoxify the liver?
Another use for castor oil packs: placing it over your liver (upper right-hand of your abdominals) to help with detoxification. Many schools of traditional medicine have used castor oil to help support optimized liver function, improve detoxification, and reduce inflammation in the liver. “The liver, our body’s detox powerhouse, is believed to benefit from castor oil packs,” Dr. Ali explained. “These packs may enhance circulation and support the natural detoxification process of the liver.” This is mostly due to ricinoleic acid, a compound in castor beans believed to help the body get rid of excess toxins. Some studies affirm that castor oil may have a positive effect on liver function, but further research is needed.
“While many individuals and practitioners vouch for the efficacy of these packs, scientific research is still catching up,” Dr. Ali said, noting that the preliminary findings are promising. Richards explained that castor oil can support detoxification by being taken orally as a laxative (bowel movements are an essential way the body eliminates toxins), but there’s not enough information or research to confirm its benefit for being used topically to help with liver detoxification. Instead, she recommends staying hydrated, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding excessive exposure to harmful substances.
Bottom line: Should I start using castor oil?
Is castor oil a practice actually worth adding to your well-being arsenal? The answer: Maybe, but talk to your doctor first. “Being steeped in both conventional medicine and holistic health, I appreciate the balance of anecdotal experiences and rigorous scientific validation,” Dr. Ali said. “Castor oil treatments, being an age-old remedy, come with a wealth of empirical evidence.” However, while many people attest to its benefits, approach this remedy with both curiosity and caution. Like with any other new health venture, talk to your doctor first.
If you and your doctor or healthcare team decide castor oil treatments are right for you, there are various options to purchase, but Leigh also shares an easy way to make your own castor oil pack at home: “All you need is a bottle of high-quality, cold-pressed castor oil; a piece of cloth or flannel that is large enough to cover your lower abdomen when folded; a hot water bottle or heating pad; and a small old towel or cling wrap to cover the pack while you’re using it (because it can get sticky and messy).”
Shop our picks
An affordable option under $10, this topical castor oil is unfiltered, undiluted, and certified organic.
USDA certified organic, cold pressed, and sustainable, this oil is a high-quality option that's formulated specifically for both beauty and wellness purposes.
This option is also cold-pressed, certified organic, and has 500+ Amazon reviews with results from reduced joint pain to better energy.
With an adjustable design, this pack is the perfect option if you're looking to use castor oil for menstrual cramps or to place over muscles to reduce pain.
If you're interested in experimenting with all that castor oil may help with, this is the pack for you. The flexible structure and shape of the pack allows you to place anywhere over the body (such as the liver for detoxification), and has a pocket in case you want to add a hot or cold compress for increased circulation.
Please consult a doctor or a mental health professional before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.