If you’re not familiar with castor oil you’re likely wondering what this oil is, and why it is so beneficial. Castor oil is derived from the plant Ricinus communis (castor seed). These seeds contain very high concentrations of the fatty acid ricinoleic acid, which has been shown to exert analgesic (pain reducing) and anti-inflammatory effects.(1) Additionally, studies have shown it has similar pharmacological properties to that of capsaicin, an anti-inflammatory compound from in chili peppers.(2) In observational studies looking at the anti-inflammatory properties of ricinoleic acid, it recognized as a new capsaicin-like, non-pungent anti-inflammatory agent suitable for topical application.(2)
Through my years in practice, I have seen the use of topical castor oil demonstrate significant benefit in reducing a variety of symptoms. Common conditions for considering its application include:
- Joint pain and swelling
- Gas, bloating, abdominal cramping
- Uterine fibroids & non-malignant ovarian cysts
- Menstrual cramps
- Gallbladder and liver conditions
Utilized since the ancient Egyptian times, castor oil is not a new therapy. Castor beans were found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 4000 B.C., and according to the Ebers Papyrus (an Egyptian medical text from 1500 B.C.) it was utilized to protect the eyes from irritation.(3) Using castor oil for medicinal purposes in the United States dates back to the 18th and 19th century pioneers, at which time it was labeled as a heroic cure for the treatment of everything from constipation to heartburn to inducing labor. With the primary function of castor oil traditionally being viewed as an oral cathartic and laxative, modern use has a stronger focus on its topical applications.
A 2011 study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice examined the effect of topical castor oil pack administrations on constipation in the elderly. This 14-day study involved 80% of study subjects who had been experiencing constipation for 10 years or longer. Results revealed “castor oil pack administration did not have an effect on the number of bowel movements or amount of feces, but decreased the feces consistency score, straining during defecation, and feeling of complete evacuation after a bowel movements, thus decreasing symptoms of constipation.”(4) While the mechanism of action is not fully understood, the benefits are becoming more and more clear.
In addition to practitioners of naturopathic and alternative medicine utilizing castor oil packs, several hospitals are starting to include this treatment as integrative therapy. The North Broward Hospital District, one of the ten largest hospital systems in the US and the largest in Florida, utilizes castor oil pack therapy for lung cancer patients to decrease the side effects of chemotherapy and aid detoxification in the lungs. Other institutions recommending castor oil packs for various treatments include the University of Maryland Medical Center as an integrative approach to pelvic inflammatory disease, irritable bowel syndrome, low back pain, kidney stones, and lung cancer; the Mercy Medical Center for the use of gallbladder disease and congestive heart failure; Allina Hospitals and Clinics for the use of pelvic inflammatory disease; and the Baltimore Washington Medical Center for the use of ulcerative colitis and pertussis.(5)
Castor oil packs are an affordable and easy option for the management of many health conditions, and best of all, they can be performed in the comfort of your home. If you are interested in utilizing this therapy but are uncertain if they are a good option for you, please consult your doctor.
Castor Oil Pack Instructions
- Piece of cloth (flannel, wool, or cotton), double layered, and cut to the size of the are of application
- Plastic wrap or ace bandage to secure wrap in place and protect clothing from staining
- Glass dish (to heat castor oil pack in)
- Heating source (hot water bottle, heating pad)
- Castor oil
- Container with lid (for storage of castor oil pack)
- Fold the piece of cloth so it is 2 layers thick
- Pour oil onto cloth until it is well moistened (this is your “castor oil pack”)
- Heat castor oil pack in glass dish in oven or microwave to a comfortable temperature
- Place castor oil pack directly over the targeted area while relaxing comfortably. Cover the pack with plastic wrap or an ace bandage to secure and to provide a protective barrier (note that the oil may stain clothing or bedding)
- Apply external heat source to keep the pack warm for the duration of its application (suggested time: 30 minutes)
- After removing the pack, cleanse the area with a dilute solution of water and baking soda (3 tbsp baking soda/quart of water)
- Store the pack in a covered container in the refrigerator between use, or up to several months. Each pack may be reused up to 20-25 times
* Castor oil packs should not be used over open wounds or ulcers, during heavy menstrual bleeding, during pregnancy, or over areas of malignancy or neuropathies.
** The above information is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for medical professional help, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult with your doctor to learn if castor oil packs are appropriate for you.
- Vieira C, Fetzer S, Sauer S K, et al. Pro- and anti-inflammatory actions of ricinoleic acid: similarities and differences with capsaicin. Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol. 2001;364(2):87-95.
- Vieira C, Evangelista S, Cirillo R, et al. Effect of ricinoleic acid in acute and subchronic experimental models of inflammation. Mediators Inflamm. 2000;9(5):223-228.
- Sims, Judith; Frey, Rebecca Gale. Castor Oil. Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005 The Gale Group, Inc. http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/castor_oil.aspx
- Arslan G G, Eser I. An examination of the effect of castor oil packs on constipation in the elderly. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2011;17(1):58-62.
- Mein E A, Richards D G, McMillin D L, Nelson C D. Transdermal absorption of castor oil. Evid Based Integrative Med. 2005;2(4):239-244.
Dr. Sidney Pharis is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor trained in family practice and pediatrics. Click here to learn more about Dr. Pharis.