What is Castor Oil?

Have you heard of the words: “castor oil”? If yes, what is your first impression about those words? If you are working in a health care institution, the first thing that would come in your mind would be “laxative”. If you are working in a food industry, the first thing that would blurt out from your mouth is “flavoring”. In case you are working in an engine factory, the sure thing that you will think first is the word “lubricant”. Castor oil can mean different things to different people because of its widespread use in different industries. So, what is castor oil?

Castor oil is a vegetable oil derived from the castor bean. A castor bean is a seed from the castor plant which belongs to the spurge family. Its scientific name is Ricinus communis. Despite its name, castor bean is not a true bean. Castor plant is native to eastern Africa and India. It is also widespread throughout tropical regions.

Castor oil is naturally colorless to pale yellow in color with mild to no odor or taste. It is rich in triglycerides, mainly ricinolein (approximately 90% of fatty acids chains). Oleic and linoleic acids are two other significant components of castor oil.

Castor oil is used in a variety of ways. Below are some of the uses of castor oil.


Castor oil can be used in the food industry. It is primarily used as food additives, flavorings, component for candies, as mold inhibitor and in packing.


Castor oil is used to treat constipation. It is recognized as safe and effective over-the-counter laxative where it acts in the small intestine. It is categorized as a stimulant laxative. It works by increasing the movement of the small intestine to expel hardened stools. Although it is very effective in cleaning the intestine, it is not widely used because of its potential to produce painful cramps, fecal incontinence and explosive diarrhea. The duration of its action is long thus could trigger bowel movement at inconvenient time and places.

Castor oil is also used to prepare a patient prior to a diagnostic procedure or a surgical procedure. For diagnostic procedures, the intestines should be clean in order to fully see the abdominal organs. Stools in the intestine may be interpreted as mass or tumor (especially in radiologic tests) thus should be eliminated in order for the doctor to come up with an accurate interpretation. In terms of colonoscopy, stools in the intestine can hinder the fiberoptic device to view the inside of the intestine very well. For surgical procedures, the intestine should be cleaned out because anesthetic agents can relax the muscles of the person and that includes the anal sphincter. When the anal sphincter relaxes, the stools inside the intestines can pass out and contaminate the surgical field which exposes one for infection.

Derivatives of castor oil also have some medicinal value and some of which are as follows:

  • Undecyclenic acid. This is FDA approved as an over the counter drug for skin disorders or problems.
  • Ricinoleic acid. This is used as an anti inflammatory agent.
  • Cremophor EL. This is a nonionic surfactant and is popularly combined with other drugs as an additive. Some of the drugs with such component are Miconazole (antifungal), Paclitaxel (used for chemotherapy), Nelfinavir mesylate (an HIV protease inhibitor), Tacrolimus (an immunosuppressive drug), and Aci-Jel (used to maintain the acidity of the vagina).

There are studies that concluded that castor oil can induce labor. However, this belief still stays controversial up to this day. One study showed that women who receives castor oil experienced labor within 24 hours compared to women who received no treatment. The rationale for this is that castor oil produces cramping sensation in the abdomen and this sensation is believed to extend down the uterus and cause labor. The irregular and painful contractions caused by castor oil are very stressful for laboring women. The pain and possible dehydration caused by frequent stool expulsion can decrease the power of laboring women which they needed most during labor. With that, usage of castor is not recommended especially for complex pregnancy.


In 1984, the Analytic Chemistry and Polymer Technology Group of São Carlos School of Engineering developed polyurethane which was derived from castor oil. This was expanded to orthopedics as a bone substitute during orthopedic surgeries for both humans and animals.


Castor oil is popularly used in transportation, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries as important component of some products that we use today such as adhesives, dyes, brake fluids, electrical liquid dielectrics, lubricating greases, paints, refrigerator lubricants, rubbers, textiles, sealants, waxes, and washing powders.

Castor oil is also used as a lubricant for rotary engines used in aviation and aeromodeling. Castor oil is preferred because it is highly resistant to degradation especially when the engine has its fuel-air mixture leaned out to achieve maximum speed.

These are some of the uses of castor oil. Further research and developments are still ongoing as to new usage of castor oil.

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