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Castor oil craze: Is this the elixir of beauty and health?

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Four months ago, Miriam Akinyi's self-confidence was at its lowest point. She didn't like the woman she saw looking back in her dressing mirror. She had tried a plethora of workout and dietary solutions but her belly fat remained stubbornly.

She had just about given up until she caught wind of a fad that had women across Kenya singing praises about its transformational power.

“I started using castor oil in January after doing research and seeing the incredible results on TiKtok. I applied the oil on my stomach and wrapped my tummy overnight and I can tell you for sure when I woke up I saw a difference,” says Ms Akinyi who now swears by its power to facilitate weight loss.

She is not the only believer.

Like Ms Akinyi, Rachel Kimani too had her stubborn health issues. Years of taking pharmaceutical drugs had not eliminated her bloating problem.

“I've been battling the bloat for ages, but ever since I started dabbling with castor oil, it's been smooth sailing. This stuff's like a secret weapon—it melts away the muffin top while giving my gut a spa day, and bonus points for taming those cramps,” says Ms Kimani.

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Besides weight loss and easing bloating and menstruation pain, other women are using castor oil for skin and haircare, to tackle medical conditions such as fibroids among other uses.

Castor oil, it seems, is the latest health and beauty elixir. 

Castor oil as a healing agent traces its roots back thousands of years, with its usage first documented in ancient Egypt, India, and China.

Renowned for its medicinal properties, it was applied topically for various ailments and consumed orally for its purported detoxifying effects. Over time, its popularity waned as modern pharmaceuticals emerged.

But social media has gone back into antiquities and brought it back as a mainstream topic. Many enthusiasts believe castor oil's ability to penetrate deep into the skin's dermis is key, promising transformation from within.

This belief has sparked a wave of testimonials and anecdotes, with users claiming remarkable transformations in their complexion after incorporating castor oil into their skincare routines.

“TikTok's the new sheriff in town, and it's got all the answers,” professes Ms Kimani.

Professor Allan Chemist Rajula, a gastroenterologist at Avenue Hospital Medical Centre says castor oil is a healthy product that helps a lot of conditions, including constipation and other therapeutic effects

“Originally, castor oil was primarily employed to alleviate constipation, but additional therapeutic benefits have been identified. It not only aids in enhancing immunity but also supports overall digestive function,” he says.

Its application extends to relieving joint discomfort, mitigating arthritis progression, and alleviating back pain. However, Prof Rajula says there is a need for caution when ingesting it orally.

“It is recommended to consult a specialist for proper dosage and usage instructions,” he emphasises.

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Professor Rajula notes that castor oil can be ingested orally or applied topically to the skin, thanks to its rapid absorption rate. However, caution is advised, especially for individuals with sensitivities. Before widespread use, it's recommended to conduct a patch test to gauge potential reactions.

While castor oil holds promise in alleviating joint pain and bolstering immunity, excessive consumption can lead to adverse effects. Pregnant women, in particular, are cautioned against overconsumption due to the risk of miscarriage.

Professor Rajula suggests a maximum daily intake of four tablespoons, with a gradual increase to assess individual tolerance.

“Caution should be exercised, avoiding application on open wounds. Some individuals may have a sensitivity to it, so it's recommended to start with a small amount to assess any reactions. For instance, pregnant women should use it cautiously as it may lead to miscarriage if applied directly,” says Prof Rajula.

Castor oil also offers benefits in hair rejuvenation and growth, although its efficacy in addressing fibroids and cysts remains contentious.

“When applying topically, it's best to thoroughly clean the belly button with warm water and start with a single drop before increasing the dosage,” he advises.

As the demand for castor oil surges, consumers are scrambling to get their hands on it.

Mary Jane, a trader of one of the shops in Nairobi says since June 2023, there has been a noticeable uptick in interest from both men and women, with individuals willing to pay up to Sh3000 per litre of the wonder-working oil.

However, the market is currently facing a shortage, leaving many customers disappointed and retailers struggling to keep up with demand. The scarcity has led to fluctuating prices.

Ms Jane says customers are specifically seeking castor oil for its purported waist-tightening properties.

“Both men and women are seeking the product known for its waist-tightening effects. Customers specify their preference when approaching us, ” she says.

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A spot check conducted by the Business Daily established that the price of castor oil ranges from Sh700 to Sh3,000, depending on the intended use.

According to data from Volza's Kenya Import as of December 12, 2023, Kenya received 598 shipments of castor oil from 114 suppliers, facilitated by 122 importers.

The primary sources of Kenya's castor oil imports are India, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. Among the top importers of castor oil, the United States leads with 31,861 shipments, followed by China with 24,151 shipments, and the Netherlands with 21,462 shipments.