Castor oil is not new, but lately it's become social media's favorite cure-all. On TikTok, there are an increasing number of videos hailing castor oil's benefits — from, allegedly, improving digestion to promoting hair growth and treating eye diseases.
Some proponents swear by putting castor oil on their scalp, face, in their belly button and even in their eyes. As with many other health trends on social media, some of these uses and claims about castor oil have sparked concern among doctors.
Is there any science to back up these popular claims and what, if any, are the benefits of castor oil? Here's what experts say.
What is castor oil?
Castor oil is a type of vegetable oil derived from the seeds of the castor bean plant, which is naturally found in Africa, India and South America, Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital, tells TODAY.com.
It has been used around the world for centuries to treat various health conditions, for cosmetic purposes and in industrial applications. Today, it's an ingredient in many beauty and household products.
Types of castor oil
Castor oil is typically extracted by cold-pressing the castor seeds, says Zeichner. Cold-pressed castor oil may be sold in various forms including organic, refined or unrefined, which have to do with how the plant was grown or how the seeds were processed.
In addition to cold-pressed castor oil, you may find another type of castor oil on shelves called black castor oil, which, according to many labels, is extracted from roasted castor bean seeds. Castor oil is sold over-the-counter in many pharmacies and online retailers.
Does castor oil have benefits?
Whether taken orally or applied topically, many people hail castor oil for having natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
A major component of castor oil is ricinoleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid, which has natural emollient benefits, which are thought to help hydrate or smooth the skin, says Zeichner.
However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only approves castor oil for one use: as a stimulant laxative, per the National Institutes of Health.
There are an abundance of anecdotal reports about castor oil's benefits, but far less robust scientific evidence to back many of these up, according to experts.
What is a castor oil pack?
A castor oil pack is a compress or cloth which is soaked in castor oil and applied to a part of the body, often the abdomen, Samantha Cassetty, registered dietitian nutritionist, tells TODAY.com.
It's essentially just another way to apply castor oil topically, but the idea is that the leaving the soaked cloth on the skin allows more oil to absorb.
Castor oil packs are typically worn for about an hour, and some people apply a heating pad on top of the pack as well, says Cassetty.
Many people on social media claim that these packs allow the oil to penetrate deep beyond the skin into the body, and that they can help with everything from inflammation, cramping, digestion, detoxing, or even breaking down cysts and tumors.
There's no scientific evidence that using a castor oil pack can do any of these things, the experts note, but prolonged application of the oil on the skin could cause irritation.
Castor oil for digestion
Castor oil can be taken orally as an over-the-counter stimulant laxative to relieve symptoms of constipation, Dr. Adil Bharucha, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic, tells TODAY.com. It is safe to consume if taken in the proper dosage, as directed by a doctor and on a short-term basis. However, there are a number of risks.
“A stimulant laxative stimulates the muscles in your intestine to push stool out, so it’s kind of an aggressive type of laxative,” says Cassetty. In simple terms, it often induces intense diarrhea.
Compared to other safe and effective over-the-counter stimulant laxatives, castor oil often has more side effects, the experts note — not to mention, a very unpleasant taste, says Bharucha.
"Castor oil, especially in larger quantities, is associated with more cramping, vomiting, bloating and dizziness," Cassetty notes.
In the long term, using a stimulant laxative too often can affect the muscles of the colon, making it harder to pass bowel movements on your own, says Cassetty. Regularly using castor oil can also be harsh on the gut, Bharucha notes. Over time, it may even damage the inner lining of the intestinal tract.
"I suppose use on an as-needed basis, intermittently and using the right dose, is probably not harmful, but it's not something that I recommend," says Bharucha.
Castor oil for hair
Many people claim that applying castor oil to the scalp can make hair grow faster. Long before it became trendy on social media, people have been using castor oil to grow their hair, experts note, and it is found in many conditioners and hair products.
However, there is no strong scientific evidence that castor oil promotes hair growth, Dr. Shari Lipner, a dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells TODAY.com.
Castor oil may help moisturize or hydrate the hair, says Zeichner, which could help it look thicker right after applying. But castor oil's hair-thickening properties have not been studied, the experts note.
While applying castor oil to the scalp is generally not harmful, there are some potential side effects, says Lipner, including clogged pores and irritation.
Castor oil for eyebrows and eye lashes
"Castor oil is commonly used as a natural treatment for eyelash and eyebrow growth," says Zeichner, adding that it is thought that the moisturizing properties of castor oil may help condition or thicken the hairs. Castor oil can also be found in some eyelash conditioners and serums.
However, beyond anecdotal reports suggesting it boosts eyelash growth or brow growth naturally, there haven't been any comprehensive studies to back this up, the experts note.
According to a report from the Tear Film & Ocular Surface Society, “there is no research indicating that eyelash cilia or follicles are either positively or negatively impacted by topical application (of castor oil) to the eyelash line.”
Avoid putting castor oil directly into the eyes, as some people have been doing on social media in an attempt to fix dry eye, treat eye disorders and improve vision. The risks include but are not limited to irritation, burning, pain, redness, blurred vision and damaging the surface of the eye, Dr. Christopher Starr, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, tells TODAY.com.
If you have issues with your eyes or vision, see an eye doctor.
Castor oil for skin
Many people use castor oil on their skin or face and claim it helps moisturize, reduce wrinkles, combat puffiness, and even clear up acne — but this has not been studied, says Lipner.
According to Zeichner, the fatty acids in ricinoleic acid may have emollient benefits to help smooth, soften and hydrate the skin, and castor oil's antioxidants properties could in theory help protect the skin from free radical damage. However, it's difficult to draw conclusions without robust scientific studies.
If people choose to use castor oil on the skin, Zeichner recommends diluting it with a carrier oil (such as coconut oil) or applying a small amount one or two times per day or as-needed. "Applying straight castor oil may lead to skin irritation, inflammation and dryness," Zeichner adds.
"Castor oil could clog pores and make acne worse or cause people to develop acne who didn’t have it before," says Lipner.
Castor oil for moles and skin tags
Some people even claim castor oil can help remove moles and skin tags, although it there is no evidence castor oil can do this, the experts note. "Even if it did, I don't think it would be a safe way to remove these things at all," says Lipner.
Castor oil in belly button
Does applying castor oil in the belly button have any benefits? A resounding no, according to the experts — there is no evidence to back up any of these claims.
Side effects of castor oil
The side effects of castor oil taken by mouth include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Irritation or damage to intestinal tract
The side effects of castor oil applied to the skin:
- Clogged pores
The side effects of castor oil applied in the eyes include:
- Blurry vision
How much castor oil to take
The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization established an acceptable daily intake of castor oil (for adult males) up to 0.7 milligrams per kilogram body weight, says Bharucha.
However, it's best to leave it up to your doctor to calculate the appropriate dosage and regimen.
Precautions for using castor oil
Always consult your health care provider before using castor oil as a stimulant laxative. When using castor oil on the skin, stop if you notice any irritation or rash developing, the experts note.
Also avoid putting castor oil directly in the eyes. A social media trend is encouraging people to do so for various eye conditions, but “there is absolutely zero scientific evidence that castor oil can safely and effectively treat glaucoma, cataract and other serious eye problems as proclaimed in some social media posts,” Starr says.
Some FDA-approved eye drops contain castor oil, but the castor oil you buy in stores is not safe for use directly in the eyes, Starr says.
As with any trend online, don't always believe what you see or hear.