Safflower oil is equally popular for cooking and as it is for boosting weight loss and skin health. Research backs up some of the claims but also suggests that this oil may be good for the heart, brain, and blood vessels. Its serotonin-like polyphenols reduce inflammation and may enhance cognition. Read on to learn more about safflower oil, with mechanisms, dosage, and side effects.
What Is Safflower Oil?
Carthamus tinctorius, known as safﬂower or false saffron, is one of the oldest known crops. It was first cultivated 4,000 years ago [1, 2].
This thistle-like plant is part of the daisy family (Asteraceae) and thrives in hot and dry climates. Safflower oil was first cultivated in China, India, Iran, and Egypt. It was then introduced to western countries between the 5th and 14th centuries [3, 4].
The safflower plant is grown primarily as an oilseed crop, but its flowers have also been cultivated for culinary, textile, and medicinal purposes [4, 3].
Safflower oil is popular for cooking and deep frying due to its high smoke point. It is a clear oil with a neutral taste that makes it a common addition to salads. Nutritionally, safflower oil is similar to sunflower oil. However, it contains some unique bioactive compounds that sunflower oil lacks .
The oil content of safflower seeds ranges from 23 – 40% [6, 4].
Safflower seed oil contains [7, 6, 2, 4, 8]:
- Mostly polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids: linoleic acid 55 – 82%
- Smaller amounts of monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acids: oleic acid 8 – 35%
- Very small amounts of saturated fatty acids (palmitic acid up to 7% and stearic acids 1 – 6%)
Linoleic and oleic acids in safflower oil provide concentrated sources of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, respectively [9, 2].
Cultivation programs in the 1960s created a safflower oil high in oleic acid (70 – 80%) and low in linoleic acid. Due to its high oleic acid content, this oil has a longer shelf life. Many other plant oils are naturally rich in oleic acid. But this special type of safflower oil is richer in oleic acid than olive oil, the usual best source of this omega-9 fatty acid (with ~66% oleic acid) .
Safflower oil is rich in antioxidant polyphenols (lignans, flavones, and serotonins), which have wide-ranging health benefits. Lignans and flavone polyphenols are phytoestrogens, plant compounds that can mimic estrogen [10, 11].
Mechanism of Action
In cell studies, safflower oil blocked a key inflammatory pathway called NF-κB and turn off genes that increase immune-activating cytokines, making it a potentially potent anti-inflammatory [12, 13, 7].
It also reduced inflammatory enzymes that can damage the placenta in pregnant diabetic rats .
Safflower oil improved bone mass in animals by increasing growth hormones (IGF-I, IGF-II) and their proteins .
It protected against small intestine ulcers from NSAID drugs (like Motrin) in mice .
Phospholipids in safflower oil lowered blood and liver cholesterol in rats by reducing cholesterol absorption in the small intestine .
Polyphenols in safflower seed oil have demonstrated activity against:
Safflower polyphenols prevented LDL from being transformed into oxidized LDL, which can block arteries. These active compounds prevented plaque buildup even in mice genetically lacking APOE. Its polyphenols also prevent arteries from becoming thick and rigid [18, 17].
Polyphenols from safflower oil enhanced antioxidant defense and reduced damage in numerous cellular and animal studies [20, 18, 21, 22].
Antioxidant serotonins from safflower oil neutralized free radicals and inflammatory cytokines in human white blood cells exposed to LPS. LPS is a bacterial toxin that often enters the bloodstream of people with leaky gut and can trigger inflammation in the whole body .
Potential Benefits of Safflower Oil
Safflower oil is safe to consume in food, but it has not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Speak with your doctor before making significant changes to your diet or supplements.
Possibly Effective For
1) Heart Health
Safflower oil reduced triglycerides, LDL, and total cholesterol in a large meta-analysis of human trials. When it comes to the breakdown of its effects compared to other oils and fats, safflower oil was :
- Better at reducing LDL than saturated fats like butter or lard (a mix of saturated and unsaturated fats)
- Better at reducing triglycerides than butter or beef fat
- Better at reducing total cholesterol than olive oil or coconut oil
- Worse at increasing HDL cholesterol than most other oils or fats, including sunflower, olive, palm, coconut oil, and beef fat
In one clinical trial, 8g/day of safflower oil reduced inflammation and increased HDL in 35 obese, post-menopausal women with type 2 diabetes over 16 weeks. But keep in mind that many other oils and fats may be more effective at increasing HDL .
In another clinical trial, 24g/day of safflower oil reduced total cholesterol and LDL in 37 healthy adults .
In multiple animal studies, diets rich in safflower oil or safflower phospholipids reduced blood and/or liver cholesterol and increased HDL levels. For example, safflower oil decreased liver cholesterol by an impressive 44% in lambs. Triglyceride levels varied in most animal studies [26, 27, 28, 8, 29, 30].
Compared to beef tallow, diets high in safflower oil were much more effective at reducing blood triglycerides in rats .
Two serotonin polyphenols from safflower oil improved recovery and reduced damage after heart attacks in a heart tissue study .
However, high-oleic-acid safflower oil (30mL/day) had no beneficial effect on lipid levels in one study on twelve post-menopausal women .
Insufficient Evidence For
The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of safflower oil for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before making significant changes to your diet, and never use safflower oil as a replacement for something your doctor recommends or prescribes.
2) Weight Management
In one clinical trial, safflower oil supplementation for 8 weeks reduced body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and body fat while increasing muscle mass in 75 women. But coconut oil was more beneficial for weight loss overall .
Safflower oil (8g/day) decreased waist fat and increased muscle mass in 35 obese, postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes over 16 weeks. However, it didn’t reduce their total fat or body mass index (BMI) .
A diet rich in safflower oil prevented fat gain in rats better than beef tallow or butter. It also limited weight gain and maintained muscle mass but reduced liver health. When rats were fed a high-fat diet, safflower oil reduced fat gain by activating fat-burning enzymes in the heart and muscles (lipoprotein lipase) [31, 35, 36, 31].
In mice, safflower oil had a beneficial epigenetic effect: it increased weight loss by reducing the expression of appetite-stimulating genes (for ghrelin) and increasing fat-burning genes (for orexin and PPARalpha) .
Safflower oil (8g/day) decreased the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein by 18% in 35 obese, postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes over 16 weeks .
In multiple studies, safflower oil reduced diabetes- and inflammation-triggered damage to the embryos in pregnant rats [38, 14, 39].
Safflower oil decreased autoimmune brain inflammation in rats, while the serotonin polyphenols from safflower seeds reduced inflammation in human white blood cells [40, 41, 22].
NSAIDs like Motrin and Advil are commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs that can cause ulcers in the small intestine. In mice, omega-3 fatty acids actually worsened the inflammation and small intestine damage caused by these drugs. But omega-6-rich safflower oil prevented ulcers from NSAIDs and reduced inflammation .
4) Brain Function
A single dose of safflower oil increased memory in 22 healthy elderly adults. It improved long-term and immediate memory, speed, and attention .
In rats, safflower seed oil prevented autoimmune brain inflammation. In mice, it prevented dementia and cognitive impairment from chronic alcohol consumption [40, 43].
The antioxidants in safflower oil improved brain health and recovery from stroke in rats. In pregnant or breastfeeding rats, safflower oil increased brain activity and levels of the key antioxidant glutathione in the brain. However, it reduced levels of another antioxidant enzyme, SOD [44, 45].
Safflower oil (8 g/day) for 16 weeks decreased fasting blood glucose in 35 obese, postmenopausal with type 2 diabetes .
In test tubes, serotonins from safflower oil blocked the activity of an enzyme (alpha-glucosidase) that breaks down starches into simple sugars. Thanks to this mechanism, safflower oil could potentially be used as a functional food for diabetics. It may reduce the amount of sugars the gut absorbs from starches in food, leading to fewer spikes in blood sugars after meals .
Diabetes during pregnancy can damage the fetus and cause health complications. In multiple studies, safflower oil decreased inflammation, damage, and improved embryo health in pregnant diabetic rats by over 50% [38, 14, 39, 47].
6) Crohn’s Disease
In a meta-analysis of clinical trials, omega-6 fatty acids in safflower oil added to tube feeding formulas increased Crohn’s disease remission better than any other type of fat .
Animal & Cell Research (Lacking Evidence)
No clinical evidence supports the use of safflower oil for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
7) Skin Health
In pigs, a diet with safflower oil reduced skin damage. In guinea pigs, it reversed symptoms of essential fatty acids deficiency such as loss of skin elasticity, spot baldness, and scaly skin [49, 50].
8) Bone Health
Safflower seeds and safflower seed oil partially prevented bone loss caused by low estrogen in postmenopausal rats [11, 15].
Its beneficial effects may not be restricted only to postmenopausal bone loss, though. A diet high in safflower oil also improved bone strength in male rats .
Dietary safflower oil improved the swimming endurance of male mice more than lard or fish oil .
10) Menstrual Health
Safflower extracts improved ovarian function by promoting blood circulation and normalized menstruation in female rats. Women with heavy menstrual bleeding often have underlying issues with their platelets. Safflower oil reduced the clumping of platelets and increased antioxidant defense in rats [53, 54].
11) Wound Healing
Safflower oil serotonins increased the activity and growth in connective tissue cells, which are crucial for wound healing and regeneration .
In multiple studies, safflower oil decreased the occurrence and growth of breast and liver cancer in rats. It also reduced colon tumor growth in rats. However, no clinical studies have investigated the relevance of these results to humans [56, 57, 58, 59].
Side Effects & Precautions
According to some studies, diets high in omega-6 fats, including safflower oil, are associated with chronic inflammatory conditions like heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and IBS. It’s generally accepted that omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, while omega-6s are considered pro-inflammatory [60, 61, 62].
However, in addition to omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, safflower oil also contains antioxidant polyphenols, anti-inflammatories that reduce the risk of many chronic diseases [60, 61, 62].
Safflower oil may be associated with increased bleeding and reduced clotting. People with blood clotting disorders, or ulcers, taking drugs that increase the risk of bleeding, or those undergoing surgery should be cautious when using safflower oil [4, 63].
In large quantities, safflower oil may promote liver damage. Acute liver failure was reported in three women who took safflower oil for weight loss. Feeding rats a safflower oil-rich diet also increased the accumulation of fat in their livers [64, 65].
Safflower oil may stimulate contractions in the uterus. Pregnant women should use caution to prevent premature labor. The safety of high amounts of safflower oil in pregnant women or children has not been established .
Some people are allergic to safflower plants. Safflower seeds or oil may trigger an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to plants in the daisy (Compositae/Asteraceae) family, including ragweed, chrysanthemums, and marigolds .
Safflower oil may increase the risk of bleeding in people taking blood thinners including aspirin, warfarin, heparin [68, 69].
Safflower oil may reduce blood cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides. People taking cholesterol-lowering drugs should use caution if ingesting large quantities of safflower oil .
Safflower oil increased the risk of liver disease in animal studies. People with liver damage should be cautious with safflower oil [64, 65].
To avoid adverse effects or unexpected interactions, talk to your doctor before making any large, sudden changes in your diet.
Limitations and Caveats
Clinical human trials on the benefits of safflower oil are limited and the majority of studies have been done in rats, mice, and other animals.
Many other studies tested Safflower Yellow, a petal extract believed to be one of the most potent parts of the safflower. However, this article only included studies done with safflower oil.
Formulations & Supplements
Safflower oil is typically used as cooking oil. It is also available formulated into softgels, sometimes in combination with vitamin B6.
Safflower oil can be applied to the skin or scalp in combination with other oils or formulated into creams or ointments.
Rarely, it may also be given as part of a tube feeding formula or injected intravenously by a healthcare professional.
There is no safe and effective dose of safflower oil because no sufficiently powered study has been conducted to find one. That said, the doses in clinical trials ranged from 6 to 24g of safflower oil per day for heart health and weight loss. The most common daily dose was around 8 g/day [24, 25, 34].
Keep in mind that the quality and content of the safflower oil may vary greatly between products.
Several users found cleansing and moisturizing with high linoleic safflower oil effectively reduced cystic acne, eczema, psoriasis, and/or flaky skin.
Most reviews of safflower oil for weight loss used a chemically-altered oil that claimed to increase the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) content of the oil to over 80%. Results were mixed with no clear trend. Most people did not experience the desired weight-loss benefits.
Many people enjoy using safflower oil for cooking due to its affordable price and light, neutral taste.