Cleansing with castor oil seems to garnering cult status, with websites devoted to it and message boards clogged with comments and questions. For the uninitiated, the idea is to mix one part castor oil with two parts olive, sunflower or other oil, spend an inordinate amount of time massaging into your face and then wipe off with a facecloth soaked in hot water. My rosacea is breaking out at the very idea and, anyway, I've always thought castor oil was a laxative. It suddenly struck me that castor oil cleansing is something Gywneth Paltrow might do. Wickedly, I searched on "castor oil cleanse gwyneth paltrow" and found that she swigs half a cup of the stuff to detox! Close enough, I say.

So, is there anything to castor oil face cleansing? Not surprisingly, the information about castor oil is mostly vague - "it's a great natural healer that has been used for centuries" - and contradictory "it's a wonderful emollient and moisturizer" and "it is very drying of the skin". Getting to the root of this oil's properties wasn't going to be easy.

Castor oil is indeed a laxative and has historically been used to induce labor. However, it is also used in the making of soap, so perhaps there is some magical cleansing property to castor oil. It turns out that castor oil is mostly - and I mean 95% - ricinoleic acid. This is a fatty acid that has a couple of notable qualities. The aforementioned purgative effects are due to "membrane-disruptive effects of detergent-like molecules, such as sodium ricinoleate (a 'soap')". Ricinoleic acid is basically a powerful antibacterial. Perhaps that's why it makes a good contraceptive gel.

Unless you have a Howard Hughes-like aversion to germs, rubbing your face with castor oil just seems like overkill.

If you still want to embark on castor oil cleansing routine, bear in mind that castor oil helps other ingredients to penetrate the skin (so be careful what you use it with or follow up with). Perhaps you should also spare a thought for the people who harvest the castor oil plant in the first place. The seeds contain ricin, which is only slightly less toxic than plutonium - a single molecule can disrupt a human cell. In addition, the allergenic compounds found on the plant surface can cause permanent nerve damage. Worry not that ricin makes into the oil; it does not. However, the workers in Brazil and India are continually exposed to this hazard.

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