Castor-oil packs are one of the most important tools I have as a naturopathic doctor for gently, effectively and inexpensively supporting health on several fronts simultaneously.
Although the internet is filled with directions for doing castor-oil packs, every description I’ve pulled up annoys me for its errors and omissions. Some directions tell you to use too much oil or too little. Some tell you to leave them on for too long or not long enough. Some tell you to wash the castor oil off after applying. Most are unnecessarily complicated.
So after years of giving my patients hazy verbal descriptions, it seemed like time to write it up properly.
What are castor-oil packs?
Classically applied to the full abdomen — from just below the breasts to just above the pelvic bones — castor oil can help all the structures in that area work better. Castor-oil packs support the liver (detox central!), intestines, pancreas, spleen, bladder, skin, uterus and ovaries. When you add heat to the process, the oil can reach up to 7 inches into the body to include the kidneys.
By effecting all those organs, castor-oil packs can improve digestion, detoxification and reproductive function. This can mean fewer belly aches, less menstrual cramping, better mood, deeper sleep, clearer skin and more.
The packs are also super relaxing, great for easing anxiety and calming you before bed. Especially when combined with heat, they also can help sore muscles and creaky joints.
How do castor-oil packs work?
Even though castor oil feels thick and soothing, it contains compounds that are slightly stimulating to circulation.
Imagine rubbing a finger gently on your arm. At first it feels light and negligible. But keep it up and eventually the skin will start getting warm and maybe even a little red.
What’s happening is the body noticing the gentle stimulation. It responds by sending blood to the area to help fix whatever might need fixing. And when you increase blood flow to a tissue or an organ, you increase its ability to function. The blood brings oxygen, immune cells and nutrients — and also takes away wastes.
Using castor oil topically shines a spotlight on the area it covers so the body pays extra attention to those local needs.
For external use only!
To be clear, I am talking about castor oil applied topically to the skin — do not ingest castor oil.
If you swallow castor oil you’ll have no question about its effect as an irritant. It’s a purgative, encouraging your body to forcefully expel the digestive tract’s contents from both ends. Vomiting and diarrhea are not most folks’ idea of a good time.
(Please don’t take castor oil internally even if you’re constipated. I promise you there are better ways to address this, and will have a blog post on this soon.)
When you should not use castor-oil packs
Although castor-oil packs are generally safe and gentle, there are some potential contraindications. As always, always talk to your doctor before changing your health regimen — especially if you got the information from the internet.
Some sources recommend caution with castor-oil packs during menstruation, as they can potentially increase bleeding. Despite this, castor-oil packs are a traditional home remedy to prevent and soothe menstrual cramps.
If you are pregnant or have cancer, please talk with your doctor before trialing castor-oil packs.
How to do a castor-oil pack
The trick to castor oil packs is getting the oil on you — and not on everything else. Most of the instructions I’ve seen require multiple steps and weird supplies (Saran wrap? Safety pins?) It’s daunting enough to keep a person from actually doing them.
But the reality is much simpler than that, and easy to turn into a regular routine.
There are two main ways to do castor oil packs. One is official and traditional, and is the most effective. The other is what I usually call “the cheater method” because it’s so much easier — and it also absolutely works. I’m offering both here so you can choose.
What you’ll need
Cotton or wool flannel, folded into three layers, that’s large enough to cover your entire abdomen from below the breasts to the hip bones. You can purchase flannel specifically for castor-oil packs or just cut up an old sheet.
Castor oil. I recommend buying organic. You can find this in most health-food stores, some pharmacies or online. It’s inexpensive and lasts a long time.
Old T-shirt. You probably will not wear this in public ever again.
Hot water bottle or reheatable rice pack. Yes, some people use heating pads. I find electric heating pads creepy, and a friend of mine’s heating pad once caught on fire. When in doubt, go low tech.
For the official method, you’ll also want a couple of old towels and a container in which to store the pack between uses.
The official method
This method is best to maximize the detoxifying and toning effects of castor oil. It’s worth doing for your health. The extra steps get you significantly better results.
- Pour castor oil on the pad, enough to saturate it without dripping. You may need 1/8 cup at first, and a few drops to refresh after that.
- Put the pad on your abdomen.
- Add a layer of something to keep the pad from contacting clothes, sheets, etc. This is where the usual instructions recommend plastic bags or saran wrap or a complicated arrangement of towels with pins. You can use old towels, cotton canvas, plastic or whatever you’d like.
- Put a hot water bottle on top.
- Keep the pack on for 20-40 minutes, or until hot water bottle cools. Use this time to read, journal or otherwise relax. I generally recommend doing these at bedtime because of their calming effects and to maximize the time for the oil to do its work.
- Remove the pad and store it somewhere it won’t make other things messy. Some folks use a Tupperware container, plastic bag or glass jar. You can reuse these pads for a long time, adding extra oil every few days to keep it saturated. Replace after it begins changing color, usually after several months.
- Put on an old t-shirt and go to bed. You do not need to clean the oil off your body. It should all be absorbed by morning.
The “cheater” method, with variations
Although using a flannel castor-oil pack is the preferred method to get the most out of this treatment, but there is an easier way. This easy method is also effective.
- Pour a small amount of castor oil into your hand, about the size of a quarter.
- Rub it on your abdomen, from below your breasts to the top of your hip bones. You’ll want enough to cover the area easily, but not so much you drip.
- Put on an old T-shirt.
- Apply the hot water bottle.
- Relax for 20-40 minutes.
- Toss off the hot water bottle and go to bed.
- You do not need to clean the oil off your body. It should all be absorbed by morning.
- Apply castor oil as above.
- Get into a hot bath or shower. The heat will have the same effect as the hot water bottle described above. Do not wash off the oil.
- Dry off gently and put on an old T-shirt. Your body will fully absorb the oil by morning.
When to use castor-oil packs
I generally tell my patients to do their castor-oil packs right before bedtime. They’re calming, so very useful as part of a wind-down ritual. Just do the pack by either of the two methods described here, read or journal, and then toss off the heat source (and pack if using one) when it’s time to go to sleep.
A single castor-oil is useful to help you relax and sleep, and provides some acute benefits to the organs underneath it. Castor-oil packs with heat are a traditional home remedy for acute menstrual cramps (use longer term to prevent them.) Consider popping on a pack for indigestion that’s not addressed with other tools. Castor-oil packs can also help you wind down from a stressful day and calm you to improve sleep.
But the real magic of COPs happens when you do them as a regular part of your routine — at least four days in a row, over many months. They can help with longer-term health issues such as healing the gut, balancing hormones, promoting detoxification and relaxation, softening scars, reducing joint or muscle pain, minimizing menstrual symptoms and more.
Larger, systemic shifts take longer, and I generally recommend that my patients do castor-oil packs for months or more. It’s okay to take breaks, but you get the most movement from regular use.
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