Ricinoleic acid, the active component of castor oil, and related fatty acids were studied to determine their relative inhibitory effects on water and electrolyte absorption using everted hamster jejunal and ileal segments. Differences were found between hydroxylated and nonhydroxylated congeners as well as between cis and trans geometric isomers. At a mucosal concentration of 2.0 mM, the unsaturated fatty acids had the following rank order of potency on inhibition of water absorption: ricionoleate greater than or equal to ricinelaidate- greater than equal to linoleate greater than oleate greater than linelaidate greater than elaidate. Ricinoleyl alcohol was effective at 2.0 mM but the methyl ester of ricinoleic acid was ineffective at this concentration. Among a series of saturated fatty acids including palmitate, stearate, a mixture of 9- and 10-hydroxystearate, and 12-hydroxystearate, only the last compound had any inhibitory effect on water absorption. The results define those portions of the ricinoleic acid molecule required for its effect on water and electrolyte absorption and suggest that classification of this cathartic as an "irritant" or "stimulant" should be re-evlauated.