Castor oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the seed of the castor plant. It has a multiplicity of uses including for skin and hair care and alleviating certain medical conditions. Exposure to the outer layer of the castor seed may result in serious medical complications.
What is castor oil?
Castor oil is derived from the seed of the castor plant, ricinus communis. The plant is indigenous to east Africa and India but is now widely grown in other tropical zones worldwide. The oil extracted from the seed has a thick consistency. The color may range from clear to slightly yellow although there is a darker colored, light to dark brown, version that gets this color from the alternative extraction process used. Castor oil generally has a mild odor and the taste is bland.
Castor oil is composed primarily of three fatty acids, ricinoleic, linoleic and oleic acids. The most abundant of the three, ricinoleic acid, is an unsaturated omega-9 fatty acid, known for its strong pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties. This makes up approximately 90% of the fatty acid content of castor oil. Oleic and linoleic acid are present in smaller portions. Oleic acid is commonly used in moisturizers for softening the skin while linoleic acid is used on the skin for retaining moisture. Other substances present include carbohydrates, enzymes, mineral salts, vitamin E, water and ricin, a toxic plant protein.
There are numerous variations in the name for the castor plant. One of the more common alternative names is Palma Christi (meaning Christ’s palm) because the shape of its leaves resembles hands. The plant is also known as the African coffee tree, Arandi, Bi Ma Zi, Bofareira, Castor bean plant, Erand, Gandharva hasta, Mexico seed/weed, mole bean, oil plant, Tangantangan oil plant and the Wonder tree.
Castor oil is obtained from the seed of the castor plant. Natural castor oil is extracted using a cold pressing technique. The outer layer of ripe castor seeds, called the hull, is first removed. This layer is what contains ricin, the toxic plant protein that can cause serious health complications as it prevents the body from producing proteins. Ricin is not usually found in the extracted oil.
The hull-less seeds are subsequently cooked in order to prepare them for the extracting process. Cooking makes the seeds more pliable and thus easier for the oil content to be pressed out. The cooked seeds are later dried and then run through a cold press which applies high pressure to extract the maximum quantity of oil possible. The oil is then filtered to remove impurities. This procedure renders oil that is slightly yellow in appearance.
A variety of castor oil, commonly called the Jamaican black castor oil, uses a different extraction method. Instead of boiling, the seeds are roasted and then passed through a grinder. This pulp is then boiled to extract the oil. This technique renders oil that is dark brown in color, a result of the presence of ashes from the roasting in the initial stage of production. The lighter colored variety is considered the purest.
Castor oil has been touted for its many health benefits in the treatment of skin conditions, for alleviating gastro-intestinal problems, as a stimulant for the immune and lymphatic systems, for its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving benefits, as an antiviral/antibacterial/antifungal, and as a beauty treatment for the promotion of healthy hair and skin, among other benefits.
The most common and oldest use of castor oil is as a laxative in the treatment of constipation. It helps to remove fecal matter by soothing and purging the upper and lower intestinal tract. Castor oil has even been used to induce labor in full-term pregnant women.
Another benefit is its ability to stimulate the immune and lymphatic systems. Castor oil absorbed into the skin leads to increased lymphocytes, a white blood cell. This further improves the function of the immune system, particularly the thymus gland, critically involved in fighting infections. An increase in the lymphocyte count of the blood also means better removal of toxins and improved blood circulation. Castor oil as an anti-inflammatory is helpful for relieving arthritic and other joint pains, back pain, nerve inflammations and sore muscles.
Castor oil is used in treating skin conditions such as abrasions, acne, age spots, athlete’s foot, boils, chronic itching, dermatosis, dry skin, inflamed skin, keratosis, liver spots, ringworm and other fungal infections, sebaceous cysts, skin rashes, stretch marks, sunburn and warts. It is generally used to promote improved healing of flesh wounds. Castor oil helps fight wrinkles by stimulating collagen production. It is commonly used in hair care as a natural moisturizer which also promotes hair growth through improved blood circulation in the scalp, helps to prevent hair loss and helps in the treatment of dandruff and dry scalp.