Feature Archive

Rethinking 6 Home Remedies

Gone are the days of castor oil for constipation and butter for soothing burns -- many of these old-time home remedies really don't work like you thought they did, and some may even be harmful.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Can castor oil really ease constipation? Does butter really make burns better? While grandma may insist these old-time home remedies work, most of them don't, and in fact, some may even be harmful.

Experts take a look at remedies of old, suggest why some might be better off retired, and provide direction for what to use instead.

1. Castor Oil

The thinking: It's a laxative that's naturally derived from the castor bean plant, and if taken regularly, the thinking is it can make you -- you guessed it -- regular. But just because it comes from a plant doesn't mean you should overdo it.

What it actually does: Castor oil is a stimulant laxative, according to the Mayo Clinic, which causes the muscles of the intestines to contract, and push stool forward. It's fast-acting, with results in two to six hours, and is among the most powerful laxatives out there. But these types of laxatives can cause side effects, including cramping, diarrhea, or nausea. And if taken regularly, like most laxatives, castor oil can actually aggravate constipation. Your body can become dependent on it for all bowel movements. Worst case, overuse can damage the nerves, muscles, and tissues of the large intestine.

What to do instead: Use castor oil and other stimulant laxatives only as a last resort, and after talking to your doctor, the Mayo Clinic says. Remember that you can become dependent on laxatives, so avoid overuse.

2. Butter

The thinking: Butter can act like a salve and help a burn heal.

What it actually does: Butter doesn't always make everything better: According to the Red Cross, putting butter on a burn can trap heat in, increasing the risk of infection.

What to do instead: "The proper care and treatment of a burn is to cool a burn -- and don't misinterpret that to mean put ice on it, which can further damage tissue," says Victoria VanderKam, RN, program director of the University of California at Irvine Regional Burn Center.

For less severe burns in which only the outer layer of the skin is burned, VanderKam recommends, "Cool the burn for 10-15 minutes by immersing it in cool water, and then put some antibiotic ointment on it and cover it with a Band-Aid."

For severe burns that are deep or cause severe blistering, or for burns that cover more than 10% of the body, seek medical attention immediately, VanderKam tells WebMD.

3. Hydrogen Peroxide

The thinking: Many people use hydrogen peroxide as an antiseptic, thinking the bubbles are a clear sign that it's killing germs.

What it actually does: "Hydrogen peroxide is better used as an agent to clean a wound of debris, but not as an agent to kill bacteria," says Thomas A. Kintanar, MD, a board member of the American Academy of Family Practice.

What to do instead: "After you've cleaned a wound with hydrogen peroxide, use rubbing alcohol as an antiseptic, which provides a broad spectrum of coverage -- killing microbes, fungi, viruses, etc.," says Kintanar, who has a private practice in Fort Wayne, Ind. "And then for the coup de grace, place some triple antibiotic ointment on it and cover it with a Band-Aid."

4. Syrup of Ipecac

The thinking: Syrup of ipecac is most commonly known as a routine home remedy for poison ingestion.

What it actually does: Plant-derived, ipecac is a stomach irritant that induces vomiting. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommends that "syrup of ipecac no longer be used routinely as a home treatment strategy."

Why the change in reputation of one of the most recognized home remedies?

An AAP policy statement says, "Although it seems to make sense to induce vomiting after the ingestion of a potentially poisonous substance, it was never proven to be effective in preventing poisoning. Recent research has failed to show benefit for children who were treated with ipecac."

The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) in Washington takes a slightly different tack.

"The American Association of Poison Control Centers believes that ipecac may well be indicated in rare circumstances," says Rose Ann Soloway, associate director of the organization.

What to do instead: The controversy over ipecac aside, Soloway, the AAPCC and the AAP recommend that no matter the situation, if poison is ingested, always call the Poison Center first.