Castor oil might be a bad childhood memory, taken reluctantly by the spoonful and tasting … not very good. These days castor oil is not taken internally as much: it is mostly used in massage, or as a nourishing body oil or face oil.
However castor oil really shines when applied in a different, gentle and wonderful way: as a pack. This method has long been used by natural medicine practitioners, and makes use of castor oil’s mighty anti-inflammatory effects (amongst its many other benefits).
WHAT IS A CASTOR OIL PACK AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
A castor oil pack is basically made of several layers of flannel-like material (wool or cotton typically), which you saturate with cold-pressed castor oil. You then position the pack directly against the skin (traditionally castor oil packs are applied to the abdomen), place a hot water bottle on top of the pack to heat it gently, and leave it in place for 1 to 2 hours.
Castor oil penetrates deep into the skin because of its light molecular weight – as a result tissues and even organs can benefit from its anti-inflammatory properties.
HOW CAN A CASTOR OIL PACK HELP?
Castor oil packs increase blood and lymphatic circulation: this promotes better assimilation (the absorption of vitamins and minerals by the body during digestion) and also better elimination (flushing out unwanted waste).
While castor oil packs are most commonly used for abdominal complaints, their anti-inflammatory effects can also help with headaches, muscle pains, sunburn, and general improvement of digestion amongst others.
Note: although castor oil packs are a gentle and time-tested natural remedy, we would first recommend discussing their use and your particular requirements with a health or natural health professional, especially if you are seeking relief from symptoms such as abdominal pain or are pregnant.
WHAT IS IN CASTOR OIL? IS THERE A RISK IN USING IT?
Castor oil contains many beneficial essential fatty acids, but its primary component (at a 90% concentration) is ricinoleic acid and is responsible for the oil’s anti-inflammatory and painkilling abilities.
Linoleic acid is another of castor oil’s components, known for its ability to lock moisture into the skin and keep it hydrated, as well as its anti-inflammatory action.
You may have heard the words ‘toxicity’ and ‘castor oil’ in the same sentence. However castor oil is not toxic, and using it externally is considered perfectly safe (we do not recommend using it internally, which can have a strong laxative effect and could lead to diarrhoea and dehydration).
Castor oil is extracted from castor oil seeds (or beans), harvested on the castor oil plant. The seeds, leaves and stem of the plant contain ricin, which is poisonous to humans and animals. However no ricin is present in the oil once it has been extracted from the seed (it is only present in the left-over watery pulp, which is discarded).
Because of its many benefits, castor oil is a widely popular ingredient in skin creams, lipsticks and face masks.
Natural beauty tip: rubbing castor oil on the body before getting into a bath is a wonderful way to help the skin absorb the nutrients from the oil. Try it!
HOW TO CREATE A CASTOR OIL PACK
You will need:
- Cold-pressed organic castor oil (at the very least, cold-pressed as this preserves all the nutrients in the oil).
- A large piece of wool or cotton flannel cloth (the average size of a pack is about 25 cm x 35 cm, when the material has been folded over several times. Your cloth should be at least 4 times that or more in surface).
- A heating pad or hot water bottle.
- A large towel (castor oil may stain, so use an old towel if you can).
- Large safety pins.
- An old shower curtain, or a few large garbage bags.
- Start by washing your flannel cloth to remove any impurities (we like organic or castile soap), and allow to dry thoroughly.
- Protect the surface you will lie down on with a plastic material such as an old shower curtain or plastic tablecloth, a few garbage bags, even dry-cleaning bags if you have them. Castor oil doesn’t just penetrate deep within the skin: it can also stain clothes and sheets! You can protect your heating pad with food cling wrap or a large plastic bag.
- Place a few towels over the plastic sheeting.
- Turn your heating pad on to medium heat, or fill your hot water bottle and cover generously with cling wrap or a plastic bag.
- Place the flannel on the covered heating pad/hot water bottle and start pouring castor oil slowly over the cloth, one layer at a time, until each layer becomes saturated – but not dripping. If you pour too much oil, wring it out in a small dish (no need to waste it!), then return the cloth to the covered heating pad, fold over and continue pouring oil if needed.
- Leave the the castor oil pack to warm up for about 10 minutes (on medium heat, or simply left on the hot water bottle). Do not leave the castor oil pack unattended during that time.
- Lie down and place the warm castor oil pack against the skin, with the heating pad/hot water bottle on top (your heating pad or hot water bottle should still be covered in plastic).
- Wrap a small towel about the body to cover and secure the castor oil pack and heat source together. You can safety-pin the edges of the towel together if you wish.
- Keep the pack on for 1 to 2 hours, but take care not to fall asleep: you may go beyond your comfort level if you do, without realising it in time to stop the treatment. We also don’t recommend turning the heating pad on too high, as this could make you feel too hot or uncomfortable too quickly, and you would not get all the benefits out of staying under the pack for up to 2 hours.
After your treatment, cleanse the skin that has been in contact with the pack with a solution of one cup warm water and one teaspoon bi-carb soda.
Store your castor oil pack in a zip lock bag or a plastic container in the refrigerator in between treatments. There is no need to wash the pack – simply resaturate it with oil the next time you want to use it. You could get up to 25 treatments out of your flannel before having to replace it (if you notice a rancid smell on your pack you should replace the flannel immediately).
Finally, we would not recommend sharing the pack between family members, so take care to label your pack when it isn’t in use.
Tip: if castor oil accidentally spills or stains clothing or sheets, you can add bi-carb soda along with detergent in the washing machine load. It should help lift the stains out, without using harsh chemicals.
Remember: choose a warm and quiet room for your treatment and set aside enough time to enjoy it!
Still curious? You can read more about castor oil’s use throughout the centuries, as well as success stories using castor oil packs in ‘The Oil That Heals‘, by Dr William McGarey, M.D.