Castor Oil—An Unexpected Social Media Star

Castor oil is a functional oil extracted from the seeds of the castor plant (Ricinus communis) and intended for use in topical skin care and beauty products. Historically, it was also used as a laxative and digestive aid.

In recent months, castor oil has become a bestseller at health food stores across the country. It has become so popular that manufacturers have been unable to keep up with demand.

The rise in sales is attributed to a viral and potentially dangerous trend on the popular social media platform TikTok, which entails putting castor oil in the bellybutton or eyes.

Travis Lemon, a certified herbalist and owner and operator at Tulsi at the Market (Huntington, WV), said there was a period of a few months where he struggled to find castor oil in stock from many of his distributors.

“We did have an increase in customer inquiries about castor oil for a few weeks, but the trend must have cooled off recently,” Lemon said. “We have received a stock of castor oil, and it seems that demand is back to what it was before the trend.”

NOW Foods (Bloomingdale, IL) is one of many castor oil manufacturers in the United States.

Neil Edward Levin, CCN, DANLA, senior nutrition education manager at NOW, said the company saw drastically increased sales of its castor oil products due to the viral social media trend.

“Sales leaped mid-year, which we do attribute to social media,” Levin said. “As a result, we were out of stock for much of the year, and demand remains strong.”

According to Levin, NOW brand castor oil has safety instructions as well as warning labels telling consumers not to pour the oil directly into their eyes. Lemon added that any good brand would have such warning labels.

“I’m not familiar with why anyone would want to apply castor oil to their bellybutton, but if your goal is a well-moisturized bellybutton then I would see no harm in it,” Lemon said. “Definitely don’t put it in your eyes. Eye drops are manufactured in a sterile factory for a reason.”

Levin said there is “absolutely no basis” for the use of castor oil in the bellybutton as a detoxifier, anti-cancer agent or other claimed benefits. It is unlikely for the castor oil to permeate beyond the layers of the skin, he added.

“These are completely irresponsible—and quite illegal—claims, made even worse by the possibility that somebody with a medical condition will opt to try a probably useless and potentially dangerous therapy and forego actual medical treatment,” Levin said.

Brianna Diorio, a doctor of integrative medicine and a clinical nutritionist, said the trend itself isn’t dangerous, but is highly misleading.

“Egregious health claims in general are a problem the industry faces as a whole,” Diorio said. “I think the trend is well-intended, but not fully accurate.”

Diorio said the castor oil trend is another iteration of attempting to reinvent the “health wheel” combined with a lack of education and context. Lemon added there’s no “magic bullet” and these types of health claims are “often too good to be true.”

“At the end of the day, people are always looking for the next ‘magic pill/quick fix/cure-all’ when it comes to their health, however, as we know this doesn’t exist,” Diorio said. “While castor oil is one of the latest health trends, its therapeutic uses have been around for centuries and have been quite popular in the functional medicine/holistic field for quite some time.”

Lemon said that social media can be a powerful tool to learn about natural health topics but implored people to never interpret social media trends as legitimate medical advice.

“I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that many of these trends often are over soon after they start,” Lemon said. “I think social media has made it difficult for the average health-conscious consumer to differentiate an expert from someone with a slick video that is just trying to rack up their view count.”

While the castor oil trend appears to have died down, retailers should still be mindful of customer inquiries and educate them on the proper uses for the product. Castor oil is perfectly safe if used properly.

“Unfortunately, influencers who lack credentials and do insufficient research, to put it mildly, are touting products like castor oil for inappropriate uses, to monetize their activity on social media,” Levin said. “Some of these claimed uses are unsafe.”VR

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