I was first introduced to castor oil as my due date approached with my first child. Like any mom, I was eager to meet my little one so I turned to the expansive wisdom that is Google to find ways to speed up my body’s natural process of going into labor.
I found many folk remedies for inducing labor that I tried (walking, spicy food, bouncing on a medicine ball, pineapple, dancing, raspberry leaf tea, and others). I also found a few I didn’t work up the courage to try… especially castor oil! (And I’m glad I didn’t… I’ll tell you why.)
What Is Castor Oil?
Castor oil (Ricinus communis) comes from the castor seed, native to India. It is extremely high in ricinoleic acid, which is thought to be responsible for its health-promoting abilities. In fact, it was once called Palma christe because its leaves resembled the hands of Christ. It is important to note that while castor oil is said to have health benefits, the castor seed itself can be deadly. Internal use of castor oil can be safe, but warrants caution.
Used in ancient Japanese healing arts and other ancient cultures, castor oil enjoys a long and distinguished history. One of the oldest medical textbooks in existence, the Ebers Papyrus, mentions that the early Egyptians applied castor oil topically as early as 1550 B.C.
While it is considered “Generally Regarded As Safe” by the FDA and up to a tablespoon per day is considered approved for internal use, it can cause extreme digestive upset in some people. I am not a doctor and don’t play one on the internet, so talk to yours before using castor oil or anything else internally.
Does Castor Oil Really Start Labor?
Castor oil is sometimes used internally for inducing labor, but the available research doubts its helpfulness. In fact taken internally it can cause raging diarrhea (the idea is this will also stimulate uterine contractions).
I chose not to try this and wouldn’t suggest it since there is some evidence that it can increase the chance of baby passing meconium before birth. It is also sometimes used to reduce constipation (again with the raging diarrhea).
I much prefer it for external use and would not personally use it internally. It is one of the two oils I use in my daily oil cleansing routine, which has greatly improved my skin.
Castor Oil Packs (& Why to Do One)
To support my body when I discovered my MTHFR mutation, I decided to try another way to use castor oil — castor oil packs!
What It Is
The idea is to keep castor oil on a piece of cloth on the skin for at least an hour with a heat source to stimulate lymph and liver function. Unlike some “detox” methods, this is not said to have any negative side effects and there are many accounts of people who noticed immediate better sleep, more energy, and clearing of skin symptoms.
NOTE: Even for external use, I’d consult with a doctor or naturopath to make sure that this natural remedy is OK for you. It should not be used if pregnant or struggling with a medical condition. I also test any new oil (or any substance) on a small part of my arm before using it on a larger area of the body.
The beauty of a castor oil pack is you can place it where benefits are needed:
- Using on the right side of the abdomen or the whole abdomen is thought to help support the liver and digestive system. Some gallbladder specialists recommend castor oil packs as part of a holistic regimen.
- Place directly on strained joints or muscles to reduce inflammation. (Note: This is not as a substitute for medical care but to speed healing of minor injuries that don’t need medical attention)
- Or try on the lower abdomen to help with menstrual pain and difficulties.
What It Does
Castor oil packs harness the anti-inflammatory and lymph stimulating benefits of castor oil but allow safer external use. From a 1999 study:
With a minimal 2-hour therapy period, this study found that castor oil packs produced a “significant” temporary increase in the number of T-11 cells that increased over a 7 hour period following treatment and then returned to normal levels within 24 hours later.
The T-11 cell increase represents a general boost in the body’s specific defense status. Lymphocytes actively defend the health of the body by forming antibodies against pathogens and their toxins. T-cell lymphocytes originate from bone marrow and the thymus gland as small lymphocytes that identify and kill viruses, fungi, bacteria, and cancer cells. T-11 cell lymphocytes supply a fundamental antibody capability to keep the specific defense system strong.
In short, castor oil packs have been said to help detoxify the liver naturally, support uterine and ovarian health, improve lymphatic circulation, and reduce inflammation.
There aren’t any conclusive studies on the use of castor oil packs externally (though there are some preliminary ones), but a long history of traditional use in many cultures. There is some evidence that it can have a suppressive effect on tumors and a positive effect on arthritis when used externally.
Castor oil packs also provide a time of quiet relaxation, which comes with its own set of health benefits!
How to Do a Castor Oil Pack
Castor oil packs are simple to do at home. I like them because they require me to be still and relax for at least an hour. That’s not always easy to accomplish! They can be messy, but with proper preparation are not.
You can also buy a complete castor oil kit rather than assemble all of the items below. See the end of this post for ones I’ve tried and like.
- high-quality castor oil (hexane free)
- unbleached and dye-free wool or cotton flannel (like this) – can be reused up to 30 times
- a wrap-around pack (or large piece of cotton flannel) or plastic wrap (not optimal)
- hot water bottle or heating pad
- glass container with lid – I use a quart-size mason jar for storing the oil-soaked flannel between uses
- old clothes, towels, and sheets – castor oil does stain!
- patience (most difficult to find!)
NOTE: I highly recommend carefully prepping the area where you’ll be doing the castor oil pack to prevent mess. Try using an old shower curtain, covered with a sheet under you to make sure nothing stains. I don’t often have to wash the sheet, and I just fold and store it in the bathroom cabinet for the next use.
How to Use a Castor Oil Pack
- Cut a large piece of cotton flannel and fold into thirds to make three layers. My original piece was 20 inches by 10 inches and when folded it was roughly 7 inches by 10 inches. Yours could be larger or smaller, depending on where you are planning to place it.
- Thoroughly soak (but not completely saturate) the flannel in castor oil. The easiest way I found to do this was to carefully fold the flannel and place in a quart-size mason jar. I then added castor oil about a tablespoon at a time (every 20 minutes or so) to give it time to saturate. I also gently shook the jar between adding more oil so that the oil could reach all parts of the cloth. Ideally, this should be done the day before to give it time to evenly soak. I save the jar since this is where I keep the flannel between uses (it can be used about 30 times).
- Carefully remove and unfold the castor oil-soaked cloth.
- While lying on an old towel or sheet, place the cloth on the desired body part.
- Cover with the wrap-around pack or cotton flannel, and place the heating pack on top of this. You could also use a plastic grocery bag to prevent oil from getting on the heating pad. A hot water bottle, electric heating pad, or rice heating pad can be used, but hot water bottles and rice packs may need to be reheated several times.
- Lie on back with feet elevated (I typically lie on the floor and rest my feet on the couch) and relax for 30-60 minutes.
- Use this time to practice deep breathing, read a book, meditate, or pray (or whatever you find relaxing).
- After the desired time, remove the pack and return the flannel to the glass container. Store in the fridge.
- Use a natural soap or a mix of baking soda and water to remove any castor oil left on the skin.
- Relax and rest. Make sure to drink enough water and stay hydrated after doing this to support detox.
Where to Buy a Castor Oil Kit
You can buy castor oil kits complete with cotton flannel, and a non-messy wrap-around pack that removes the need for plastic wrap.
- I’ve used this one from Radiant Life with great results (it didn’t leak at all).
- This castor oil kit by Dr. Marisol Teijeiro is similar to Radiant Life in price and quality, but the design of the flannel wrap is a little more contoured and ties on easily. My podcast interview with Dr. Marisol is a great place to learn more about castor oil and digestion.
Other Ways to Use Castor Oil
Castor oil is handy to have around the house for other uses as well. It is rich in fatty acids and it contains antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit the body in many ways. Use castor oil externally to:
- Apply to acne, dry skin, rashes, boils, age spots, and warts to improve complexion and boost moisture
- Treat toenail fungus
- Soothe a sprain, injury, or sore joints
- Apply to areas of back pain
- To cleanse and soothe abdomen when having digestive or reproductive trouble
For best results, apply castor oil packs for 60-90 minutes as soon as trouble starts. Do this about 3 times a week for a 3 week period. Consult with a doctor to rule out more serious causes.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever used castor oil? I’ll be sharing some of my other favorite uses soon, but please share yours below!