For thousands of years, people have turned to castor oil for help with everything from inducing labor (despite a lack of evidence) to fueling lamps. And here’s a relatively new way to use it: as a “pack.” Castor oil packs can be made with a few sheets of flannel or wool that are soaked in castor oil. Then stacked on top of one another and placed on certain parts of the body using either a holder or something like plastic wrap. That keeps it in place as the castor oil is absorbed into the skin.
Castor oil is said to help with things like constipation, joint pain, and — not necessarily when used in a pack — some skin issues. We were curious about whether castor oil packs live up to the hype. So, we looked into what they are, how they work, and whether they can cause any negative reactions.
First, what is castor oil?
Castor oil comes from the castor bean plant. It’s a multipurpose vegetable oil that’s been used for a lonnng time. Think: Ancient Egyptians used it to treat certain health conditions like eye irritation. The castor beans — which are actually the plant’s seeds — contain the toxic enzyme ricin (so they shouldn’t be eaten). They become inactive during the process of making oil. Castor oil's grown in popularity in recent years. And it's a popular ingredient in many skincare and hair care products.
What’re the supposed benefits of castor oil packs?
Research around the benefits of castor oil packs for certain health conditions is limited and inconclusive. See: promoting hair growth and keeping the skin, liver, and gallbladder healthy. But here are two conditions where studies have shown they might provide some benefit.
Joint Pain: Castor oil packs may help reduce pain and swelling in people with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Which can cause inflammation and swelling in the knees, fingers, and other joints. One study compared castor oil packs to the prescription pain relief gel diclofenac. Both were given to people with osteoarthritis in the knee. And researchers found that while castor oil packs helped roughly the same number of people, they had fewer side effects than the gel.
Constipation: Some people like to wrap the castor oil packs around their stomach to help with constipation. And it might make it just a bit easier. A study out of Turkey tested castor oil packs on older adults — many who’d been dealing with constipation for 10 years or longer. The good news: The castor oil packs helped with some symptoms. The bad news: They didn’t put an end to their constipation.
Are there any side effects?
There are some. For example, if the castor oil causes an allergic reaction, you may feel itchy or see swelling or rashes on the skin. So it’s important to do a patch test if you’re trying it for the first time. That means rubbing a few drops of oil on your skin and leaving it there for 24 hours to see if it triggers anything. If not, you’re good to go. Castor oil packs might also help with constipation. But drinking too much of it as a laxative can come with risks, including cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness.
You’ll be safer avoiding castor oil packs if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. (Because the oil could potentially trigger premature contractions and its effects on babies are still unknown.) Or if you have certain health conditions that already cause symptoms like the ones mentioned above.
Castor oil packs could potentially help with some health issues. But more research is needed to confirm that it’s actually helpful. As always, speak to your doctor before trying any new treatment.
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