I'm going to deviate today and put our Chemical of the Day in a Q&A form.
Q. What do you think about castor oil? It is an ingredient in my favorite organic soap. I've read mixed things about it. That it contains a toxic protein called ricin at some stage of production but apparantly none of that remains in the final product. What do you think?
A. That's a great question. Castor oil by itself is not a bad ingredient, and is a widely used in soaps, lotions, etc all over the world with a long history of safety as an oil. However, castor oil production is not a safe or environmentally-friendly process. First of all, castor oil is in high demand because it's cheap and it has unique chemical properties that allow it to be used in many industries to make lubricants, inks, paints, greases, adhesives and other industrial products. Because of its high demand and low cost, the castor seed plant is, in many cases, genetically modified to increase yield and obtain certain fatty acid compositions. Genetically modified crops, as you may know, can weaken ecosystems and deplete soils (among other side effects). In addition, these crops require fertilizers and pesticides which pollute the soil and groundwater. The use of a certified organic castor seed oil would of course not contribute to these problems. However, there is still the problem of the processing. The castor seed contains the poison ricin (as you already know). Ricin is only slightly less toxic to the body than radioactive plutonium! The oil extraction process removes the toxin from the oil, but the waste material has to go somewhere---it can end up in wastewater and landfills which then pollute the entire environment. Much of the worlds' castor oil is processed in countries that don't have strict environmental safety standards. In addition, there are allergenic compounds found on the plant surface can cause permanent nerve damage, making the harvest of castor beans a human health risk for the workers involved. So, although as a finished product it's safe for use, we feel it's not a responsible ingredient to use because of the safety risks involved with the processing and harvest of the plant. We have found that other oils such as sunflower and coconut do just as good or better of a job at moisturizing skin and don't have these negative side effects!