Understanding and using castor oil packs

Castor oil is made from the seeds of a North American plant, Ricinus communis, and is used in packs on the body or orally as a supportive treatment for various discomforts and conditions. 

Castor oil is not a cure for any disease, but is used to support the body with detoxification and reducing inflammation. It may be useful for painful pelvic conditions to help reduce inflammation and pain.

Castor oil is a triglyceride with 90 per cent of its unsaturated omega-9 fatty acids being ricinoleic acid. This oil has been used traditionally for many thousands of years for its health benefits. 

One of the main issues with castor oil is it’s sticky and stains, so getting your systems right before you start is key to successful treatments.

Benefits of castor oil packs

Castor oil packs, especially with heat (which is not essential but can add warmth to the affected area, which can be more useful) are the most beneficial, but adding compression to the area is also very important. Using just the castor oil itself topically does not have the same benefits.

Science has shown without a doubt, using blood markers, that castor oil packs make measurable changes. What can be a hindrance is the pack itself and application, but don’t let that stop you – castor oil packs are very helpful.

Castor oil packs:

  • Reduce swelling by improving lymphatic flow
  • Improve microbial balance via nitric oxide stimulation and biofilm breakdown
  • Stimulate smooth muscle and peristalsis
  • Provides a source of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids
  • Provides a source of vitamin E

Using castor oil packs during pregnancy and periods

There are some camps that say you shouldn’t use castor oil packs if you’re pregnant or during your period, but let’s explore why.

Castor oil stimulates PGE3 receptors in smooth muscle, including the uterus, so it could aggravate menstrual cramping. Castor oil packs are highly unlikely to cause blood thinning and excess bleeding, as there simply isn’t enough castor oil in a pack to have such an effect.

During pregnancy, castor oil packs should only be used under the care of an experienced practitioner. Otherwise, avoid.

Choosing the best castor oil

Organic castor oil is the best, since the fatty acids are absorbed through the skin. Any pesticides used will then also be absorbed, which is undesirable. 

How to do a castor oil pack

What you’ll need

  • Organic castor oil
  • White washcloth made of flannel big enough to cover your treatment area
  • Plastic bag or clingfilm large enough to cover the cloth
  • Heating pad, heated throw or hot water bottle

How to apply the castor oil pack

  1. Pour a small amount of castor oil onto the cloth.
  2. Apply the cloth to the affected area.
  3. Cover the flannel with the plastic.
  4. Put your warming tool (heating pad, hot water bottle, etc) over the top on a low setting.
  5. Relax for the application time, 30-60 minutes.
  6. When you’re done, remove the pack and wash the area with water.
  7. You can reuse this cloth, so there’s no need to wash the castor oil off – just store it in a safe place.
  8. Apply the pack as needed once per day, no more than five days without a break.

The science of castor oil packs

Castor oil absorption through the skin

A small study​1,2​ looked at the differences between castor oil absorption through the skin versus oral intake. A castor oil pack with heat was used by three study participants for 90 minutes each day over three consecutive days, then an oral treatment was used after a break.

Epoxydicarbylic acids are the breakdown metabolites of castor oil and are excreted in the urine. Urine samples were taken before the treatments and then after eight hours post-application. For the oral doses, castor oil was administered at a dose of 2.5ml with a second dose one week later of 1.5ml. 

There were no differences in the excretion of epoxydicarbylic acid before and after the application of castor oil packs, but significant differences were found after oral administration. This doesn’t mean the oil is not absorbed but raised questions regarding its mechanism of action and biochemical pathway metabolism when used topically. 

How does castor oil help the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system is a network of veins, similar to blood vessels but without a heart to pump the fluid around. Lymphatic vessels draw in junk from the body and deliver it to the liver for filtering. Once filtered, this debris is excreted via the bowel. 

The lymphatic vessels can only push their lymph fluid around when you move, so if you are unable to move or have a sedentary lifestyle, metabolic junk can build up in your body. 

Castor oil packs for pain reduction

A group of researchers​3​ tested out the effectiveness of various gels and castor oil for shockwave applications to see how pain perception was affected. 

Each patient received 30 treatments: 10 using ultrasonic gel, 10 using petroleum jelly and 10 using castor oil. Patients were not aware of which medium was being used at each treatment and were asked to rate their pain with each treatment. 

Castor oil as the medium significantly reduced the reports of pain compared with ultrasonic gel in all three of the patient conditions. This reduction in pain was attributed to the cavitations formed in the skin by the extracorporeal treatment that irritates nerve fibres and results in pain. The viscosity and chemical structure of castor oil result in no cavitations forming during treatment, thus reducing pain during treatments.

In mice and guinea pigs, other studies​4–6​ looked at the antinociceptive and anti-inflammatory effects of castor oil versus capsaicin. The researchers found that ricinoleic acid didn’t exert irritant or nociceptive effects, unlike capsaicin, yet had potent antinociceptive effects in several tests. 

Ricinoleic acid depletes substance P when there is neurogenic inflammation, as does capsaicin, and ricinoleic acid is anti-inflammatory. The authors suggest that ricinoleic acid may be equally effective for neuropathic pain as capsaicin without the irritant effects and could be used in post-herpetic neuralgia, diabetic neuropathy and other neuropathic disorders.

Castor oil for immune and liver function

Researchers​7​ studied a single castor oil pack versus a paraffin oil pack in healthy participants. The packs were applied to the liver and abdomen for two hours with heat, with blood samples collected immediately before application and two and seven hours after the removal of the pack. 

Blood was assessed for total lymphocytes, T11, T4, T8 and B cells, with results showing that the total lymphocyte count peaked at seven hours, with an increase in T11 cells contributing to the overall count. At 24 hours, total lymphocytes declined within normal limits.

Another study​8​ looked into patients suffering from fatigue and how long-term use of castor oil packs might impact them. Castor oil packs were used for 90 hours per day over the liver area for five days per week for two weeks. 

Blood samples were taken on days 0, 8, 15 and 22, and assessed for total lymphocytes, T11, T4, T8, liver function variables and cholesterol levels. The mean total lymphocyte counts normalised and were lower at the end of treatment versus the beginning, and two patients out of 17 who had elevated liver enzymes and cholesterol had normalised results by the end of the study.

Castor oil for constipation

Researchers​9​ looked into the use of castor oil packs on the abdomen to help chronic constipation in the elderly. The packs were applied for 60 minutes on three consecutive days. The castor oil packs improved faecal consistency, reduced straining and improved evacuation, but there was no change to the frequency of bowel movements or how much faeces was evacuated.

Use of castor oil for artificial tears

Low-dose castor oil eyedrops were developed for use in obstructive meibomian gland dysfunction. In a study,​​10​​ the eyedrops were used as artificial tears twice daily for two weeks, with the eyedrops showing an improvement in symptoms. The eyedrops with castor oil provide a more stable tear film and a significant decrease in ocular dry eye symptoms.

References

  1. 1.
    Kennedy, MBA, ND DA, Keaton, NMD, LAC D. Evidence for the Topical Application of Castor Oil. International Journal of Naturopathic Medicine. Published March 12, 2012. https://intjnm.com/evidence-for-the-topical-application-of-castor-oil/
  2. 2.
    Mein EA, Richards DG, McMillin DL, Nelson CD. Transdermal Absorption of Castor Oil. Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. Published online 2005:239-244. doi:10.2165/01197065-200502040-00006
  3. 3.
    Maier M, Staupendahl D, Duerr HR, Refior HJ. Castor oil decreases pain during extracorporeal shock wave application. Archives of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery. Published online November 15, 1999:423-427. doi:10.1007/s004020050013
  4. 4.
    Vieira C, Fetzer S, Sauer S, et al. Pro- and anti-inflammatory actions of ricinoleic acid: similarities and differences with capsaicin. Naunyn-Schmiedeberg’s Archives of Pharmacology. Published online August 1, 2001:87-95. doi:10.1007/s002100100427
  5. 5.
    Vieira C, Evangelista S, Cirillo R, Lippi A, Maggi CA, Manzini S. Effect of ricinoleic acid in acute and subchronic experimental models of inflammation. Mediators of Inflammation. Published online 2000:223-228. doi:10.1080/09629350020025737
  6. 6.
    Vieira C, Evangelista S, Cirillo R, et al. Antinociceptive activity of ricinoleic acid, a capsaicin-like compound devoid of pungent properties. European Journal of Pharmacology. Published online October 2000:109-116. doi:10.1016/s0014-2999(00)00727-5
  7. 7.
    Grady H. . Journal of Naturopathic Medicine . 1998;7(1):84-89.
  8. 8.
    Keaton D, Myatt D. Effects of castor oil on lymphocytes subsets. Presented at: AANP Conference; September 2, 1992; The Buttes, Tempe Arizona.
  9. 9.
    Arslan GG, Eşer İ. An examination of the effect of castor oil packs on constipation in the elderly. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. Published online February 2011:58-62. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.04.004
  10. 10.
    Maïssa C, Guillon M, Simmons P, Vehige J. Effect of castor oil emulsion eyedrops on tear film composition and stability. Contact Lens and Anterior Eye. Published online April 2010:76-82. doi:10.1016/j.clae.2009.10.005


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Jessica Lloyd - Vulvovaginal Specialist Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)
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