Castor Oil as a Carrier for Holistic Aromatherapy
Laraine Pounds, RN, BSN, MSN, CMT
Previously published in the International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy, Vol.4, #3, Winter 2015, pp. 37-41.
Castor oil is not commonly thought of as a carrier agent for clinical aromatherapy yet it has been used for thousands of years in folk medicine by many cultures. It has many healing benefits when used alone and the effects can be potentiated when used in combination with selected essential oils targeting identified ailments. Castor bean oil is colorless or very pale yellow, viscous, highly emollient and quickly absorbed by the skin.
Castor oil preferred for aromatherapy use is hexane free, extracted by cold pressure from the seed of the castor plant, Ricinus communis. Lower grades of this oil are extracted by hot pressure, solvents and by grinding the seeds and boiling in water for industrial grade oil. There are over 700 uses for castor oil, some of these include use as a mold inhibitor, ingredient in skin care products, cosmetics (lipstick), as a food additive and in the manufacturing of fibers, plastics, paints, dyes and leather treatments. Because the oil has a stable viscosity and won’t freeze, it is used for lubricating equipment in cold climates. (oilseedcrops.org)
Although Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) popularized castor oil packs, the oil has a long and varied history for use as a healing agent in folk medicine around the world. According to a research report in the Journal of Naturopathic Medicine, castor bean seeds, believed to be 4,000 years old, were found in Egyptian tombs. Egyptians burned the seed oil in their lamps and used it to alleviate eye irritations and as a base for perfumed ointments. (Grady)
Ayurvedic medicine has a long history of using castor oil (CO) as a purgative, and for sciatic and rheumatic pain. (Price, pp 55-56) Healing traditions in China used the oil for induction of labor and expulsion of the placenta and for epilepsy in ancient Persia. (Gabbay, 1999) In ancient Rome, the castor oil plant was known as Palma Christi, which translates into “hand of Christ” as the leaf was said to resemble the hand of Christ. This name continues to be used today.
The Castor Bean plant is the only member of the genus Ricinus. The plant grows as a shrub or a tree up to 40 feet depending on water supply, sun exposure, and quality of the soil. While the Castor plant is native to Africa, leading producing countries are India, China, Brazil, and Russia. It can be cultivated in temperate climates with a growing season of 140-180 days, but will die below 32° F. It is noteworthy that in commercial production the plants absorb carbon dioxide at an estimated 34.6 tons per hectare, thereby providing carbon tax credits as additional revenue to producers.
The large leaves are alternate and the flowers are arranged in a cluster. (Price, p.55) The seeds are bean shaped and mottled in appearance. Chemically, castor oil is a triglyceride (ester) comprised of fatty acids of which 90% is Ricinoleic acid. The other components include Linoleic acid 4.2%, Oleic acid 3.0%, Palmitic acid and Stearic acid, 1.0%; Linolenic acid and Eicosanoic acid, 0.3%. The composition of castor oil and its high viscosity are remarkably constant. (McGarey, p.62)
Concerns have been cited about ricin, a toxic glycoprotein found in castor beans. According to official toxicology reports, it is said that ricin does not partition into the oil. Additionally, the refining process denatures and inactivates the toxic protein assuring it is safe for medicinal and cosmetic uses. Castor oil is classified by US Food and Drug Administration as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and effective for internal use as a stimulant. The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives established an acceptable oral daily castor oil intake up to 0.7 mg/kg body weight. (International Castor Oil Association)
Uses and Benefits
Castor oil uses in aromatherapy are by topical application, such as the traditional castor oil pack or as a lotion or oil additive for massage or skin care. A book about the Vermont style of folkmedicine by D.C. Jarvis, published in 1958, lists numerous conditions that respond well to the topical application of castor oil. Examples included: irritation of the conjunctiva of the eye; healing of the umbilicus in a newborn; and increasing milk flow in lactating women when applied to the breasts. (Gabbay, 1999)
Dr. William McGarey of Phoenix, Arizona researched the uses of castor oil as recommended by Edgar Cayce and used them in his private practice. In his book, The Oil that Heals, he describes uses of castor oil packs for numerous conditions including: liver and gall bladder disturbances, wound care, cysts, abscesses, headaches, appendicitis, epilepsy, hemorrhoids, constipation, intestinal obstructions, hyperactivity in children and averting threatened abortions in pregnant women. (McGarey, pp.58)
Use of Essential Oils with the Castor Oil Compress
It is well understood that a closed compress encourages the absorption of essential oils while reducing vaporization. The traditional castor oil pack is simply a compress made with three layers of wool flannel saturated with castor oil. Wool flannel is recommended as the fabric of choice because it holds the gelatinous, viscous castor oil well and also provides added warmth for improved absorption. Cotton flannel or other absorbent fabric may be substituted. This oil stains clothing and bedding so generally a towel or protective pad is placed under the body area and the compress is covered with a plastic wrap and small towel to hold in place.
A single essential oil or a synergy blend specially formulated for the condition being addressed, such as inflammation, pain, or skin care can be applied neat to body area treated or to the surface of the wool flannel which is placed over the target area. This article does not support a complete discussion of recommended essential oils for the range of common ailments that could benefit from castor oil packs. The qualified aromatherapist would select essential oils congruent for the presenting symptoms and the identified desired outcomes. Naturally, one would work within one’s scope of credentials and expertise and with physician awareness or input, as appropriate.
Application of the Castor Oil Compress
In over 50% of his readings, Cayce recommended using the castor oil pack, or compress, for an hour. The frequency most often recommended was for one hour three times a week. The duration varied from a single application to repeated applications for six months. In most cases, the therapy was recommended for a period of two to four weeks.
As an adjunctive aromatherapy application, the frequency and duration will depend on many variables, such as chronicity, level of discomfort, outcome goals and client compliance. If someone has a difficult time in preparing and using the compress, benefit is also gained by simply applying essential oils with the castor oil to the affected area. Essential oils with castor oil can also be applied to small areas such as warts and skin tags with a single use band-aids or commercial compress.
- Protective liner or towel underneath and around clothing to prevent staining bed linens or clothing
- White wool flannel or other absorbent fabric
- Bowl or pan
- Saran wrap or plastic bag cut up
- Towel to lie on or wrap around the pack
- Hot water bottle for additional warmth
- Zip lock bag or sealed container for storage
- Fold the cloth to make three layers
- Pour some of the castor oil in a small bowl and soak the wool flannel in the oil.
- Wring the cloth so it is moist but not dripping.
- Apply the essential oils blend directly to the skin area, except for young children
- Lie down, cover the skin area with the castor oil pack and cover with plastic wrap
- Apply a hot water bottle, or hot wet towel; electric heating pad is discouraged for safety reasons
- Relax, read a book, listen to music, gentle breathing exercises, sleep
- Treatment time is generally 1 hour
Place the moist castor oil pack in a zip lock bag or other sealed container and keep in the refrigerator between treatments. Replenish with additional castor oil for subsequent treatments. In most cases, the compress can be used repeatedly for several weeks before laundering. Do not dry clean the flannel as it would contamanant the cloth with chemicals. The skin can be cleansed afterwards with soap and water or by using a quart solution of water with two teaspoons baking soda.
Dr. Joseph Mercola has summarized the benefits of castor oil into six general categories of medicinal uses:
- Skin conditions, cysts, scars
- Labor stimulant
- Gastrointestinal remedy
- Analgesic, anti-inflammatory
- Antimicrobial (antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal)
- Immune system and lymphatic stimulant
Castor oil can easily be combined with other carrier oils for skin care and has been reported as successful for scleroderma, psoriasis, wound care, sebaceous cysts and warts. Skin conditions identified by Dr. Mercola as improved with topical application of castor oil include: keratosis, dermatitis, wound healing, acne, ringworm, warts and other skin infections, sebaceous cysts, itching, and hair loss. He reported that castor oil and ricinoleic acid also enhance the absorption of other agents across your skin. (Mercola, 2012) Edgar Cayce recommended camphor oil for scar repair. Use essential oils useful for skin care in combination with the COP.
Fibro-cystic Breast Disease
This writer was introduced to castor oil packs (COP) for non-malignant breast cysts by the internationally known German trained nurse and herbal healer, Hanna Kroeger (1915-1998) who founded one of the nation’s first health food stores in Boulder, CO in 1957.
For cystic breast disease Hannah advocated the castor oil packs over the breasts for three consecutive nights. While skeptical at the time, I tried this protocol and found that little, mildly uncomfortable lumps disappeared. Hanna felt that this treatment was also diagnostic for breast cancer if the cysts did not dissolve. Dr. Christine Northrup, a well known holistic physician, also recommends castor oil packs for women with painful cystic breast disease.
Labor and Delivery
Susan Weed, author of the book Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year, discusses the use of castor oil in traditional midwifery. Castor oil is used internally and externally to stimulate the uterus, soften the cervix, and help initiate labor. She suggests rubbing castor oil on the abdomen and covering with a warm towel if the cervix is ripe and labor seems near. Some midwives rub castor oil on the feet to support efficient labor. (Gabbay, 1999)
The Gastro-intestinal System
It is well accepted that castor oil taken internally improves gastro-intestinal elimination in the presence of constipation, flatulence and impaction and supports the maintainaince of mucous membrane lining.
Research was conducted using the castor oil pack for long term constipated elders living in two assisted living facilities in Manisa, Turkey. The number of the study participants was not given but eighty percent had been chronically constipated for ten years or longer. Study participants were monitored for seven days before, for three days the castor oil pack was administered and for four days following. The conclusion was that COP may be useful for controlling symptoms of constipation. (Arslan GG, Eşer I.)
It is well accepted that castor oil reduces inflammation and reduces pain. This is especially notable where there are post-surgical adhesions and scar tissue affecting local nerve systems. This writer worked on a hospital based acute care psychiatric unit where patients were admitted for depression with suicide ideation secondary to uncontrolled chronic pain. Often pain medications were no longer effective or were being abused and needed to be re-titrated.
With the authorization of the consulting pain specialist, I was given the opportunity to provide and instruct two patients in the use of castor oil packs as an adjunctive therapy for nerve related back pain and abdominal pain secondary to surgical adhesions. The consulting pain specialist explained to me that nerve related pain syndromes are difficult to treat and do not respond well to opiates, yet that is often the treatment of choice. While their pain medications were being re-titrated the patients mentioned above were given either a Fentanyl patch or 5% Lidocaine transdermal patch.
With only three days trial use in the hospital, one hour for each application per day, both patients admitted to me personally that the castor oil pack was pain relieving but they still wanted a prescription for opiates on discharge. The patients were discharged with the COP and it is unknown if they continued using the compress after discharge or not.
In his book, Dr. McGarey describes several case studies involving abdominal pain and back pain and responding positively to the COP for varying lengths of time.
Immune System Stimulant
McGarey reported that when used properly, castor oil packs improve the function of the thymus gland and other components of the immune system. He found in two separate studies that patients using abdominal castor oil packs had significant increases in lymphocyte production as compared to placebo packs.
Lymphocytes are produced and stored mainly in lymphatic tissue, the thymus gland, spleen, and lymph nodes. Hundreds of miles of lymph vessels allow metabolic waste to be collected and transported to blood for elimination, a process referred to as lymphatic drainage. When the lymphatic system is not working properly, waste and toxins can build up and lead to inflammation and disease. According to E. Casey and W. McGarey, when castor oil is absorbed through the skin, lymphocyte counts increase and speed up the removal of toxins to promote healing. (McGarey,pp 92-96)
Castor oil packs are frequently cited in the support of liver health especially after chemotherapy, cessation of alcohol use, and other conditions that stress the functioning of the liver.
“Our clinical experience with the castor oil packs applied over the abdomen led us to understand that the packs enhanced the function of the thymus gland and other component parts of the immune system, making that system more effective in protecting the body from outside and inside dangers and helping the immune system take the lead in rebuilding any given part of the body.” (McGarey P. 64)
The physiologic interaction of castor oil with body remains elusive; however, Dr. McGarey presents a plausible hypothesis relating to Edgar Cayce’s suggestion that castor oil packs can strengthen Peyer’s Patches, tiny patches of lymphatic tissue in the mucosal surface of the small intestine. According to Cayce, the Peyer’s Patches produce a substance that facilitates electrical contact between the autonomous and the cerebrospinal nervous system when it reaches those areas via the bloodstream. Although the Peyer’s Patches were discovered in 1677, it is only recently that medical science has begun to recognize them as constituents of the body’s immune system. (McGarey, pp.88-89)
Current research appears to confirm Dr. McGarey’s theory. A double-blind study, described by Harvey Grady in a report entitled ‘Immunomodulation through Castor OilPacks” published in the Journal of Naturopathic Medicine, examined lymphocyte values of 36 healthy subjects before and after topical castor oil application. This study identified castor oil as an anti-toxin, and as having impact on the lymphatic system, enhancing immunologic function. The study found that a minimal two-hour duration castor oil pack produced an increase in the number of T-11 cells within a 24-hour period following treatment, with a concomitant increase in the number of total lymphocytes. This T-11 cell increase represents a general boost in the body’s specific defense status, since lymphocytes actively defend the health of the body by forming antibodies against pathogens and their toxins. T-cells identify and kill viruses, fungi, bacteria, and cancer cells. (Grady, pp. 84-88.)
There are numerous choices of essential oils to be used with a castor oil dressing. The selection of essential oils would be made according to the ailment being addressed as well as the area of the body, the age of the client and contraindications, if any. Castor oil has been used for thousands of years without the benefit of essential oils and it is believed that the use of essential oils will contribute significantly to one’s overall health as well as support localized healing. Documented castor oil compress trials are lacking in the literature. This author will accept and file such case studies if you wish to report your findings, effective or not.
Arslan GG, Eşer I. An examination of the effect of castor oil packs on constipation in the elderly. Complementary Therapeutic Clinical Practice 2011 Feb;17(1):58-62.
Gabbay, Simone, Castor Oil: Modern Uses for an Old Folk Remedy, 1999. www.edgarcaycediet.com.
Grady, Harvey. Immunomodulation through Castor Oil Packs, Journal of Naturopathic Medicine, Vol 7, No. 1. pp.84-88. (www.medicinefreehealing.com)
International Castor Oil Association, www.ICOA.org
Jarvis, D. C. Folk Medicine, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1958, pp. 147-150.
McGarvey, William, MD, The Oil that Heals, A. R. E. Press, Virginia Beach, VA. 2002, 7th printing.
Mercola, Dr. Joseph, www.Mercola.com, August 12, 2012.
Oil Seed Crops, Castor Bean, www.oilseedcrops.org
Price, Len. Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage. Stratford-on-Avon: Warwickshire, Eng. 3rd ed. 1999, pp 55-57.
International Castor Oil Association, www.ICOA.org
Note: Previously published in The International Journal of Holistic and Professional Aromatherapy, Winter, 2015, pp. 37-41.