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A Guide to the Varied Uses of Camphor

Chandramita Bora
Camphor is traditionally used for treating cold, cough, muscle and joint pain, and itching. But edible camphor is mainly used as a flavoring agent in sweets. It has been a folk remedy for a host of medical conditions.
Products containing camphor can explode and cause burns, if they are heated or microwaved.
Camphor is a white, waxy solid obtained from the wood of the camphor tree. The bark and wood of camphor laurel or Cinnamomum camphora are distilled, and then purified to extract the highly aromatic camphor crystals.
But today, camphor is mainly manufactured from turpentine oil. The camphor tree is native to China, Taiwan, and Japan.

Camphor laurel was introduced in India thousands of years ago, and today, this evergreen tree is widely grown in India and Ceylon.
Another important tree that yields camphor is Dryobalanops camphora, and the camphor extracted from this tree is known as Borneo camphor. However, camphor can be found in some other related trees of the plant family Lauraceae or laurel family as well.
In Asia, it is largely obtained from the plant camphor basil. Camphor can be easily recognized by its strong aroma.

Medicinal Uses

Both solid camphor and camphor oil are used for medicinal purposes. Camphor oil can come in three varieties, of which the brown and the yellow varieties are considered toxic. They contain a high level of safrole, which is a potential carcinogen. White camphor oil has low safrole content, and so, it is widely used for medicinal purposes.
Camphor is basically known for its anti-inflammatory, analgesic, febrifuge, expectorant, decongestant, antimicrobial, and insecticidal properties.

Relieves Pain and Itching

Camphor oil is often used to relieve muscle and joint pain due to its analgesic effect.
When applied on the skin, it first numbs and cools the affected area and then warms it by increasing the flow of blood. Camphor seems to stimulate the peripheral nerve endings, which in turn helps relieve pain and itching. It is a counter-irritant, which means it can relieve pain and inflammation by causing irritation.
Camphor oil or a paste of camphor can be applied to relieve pain and joint stiffness caused by osteoarthritis, rheumatism, sprains, and bruises. Camphor is found in many over-the-counter anti-itch gels and cooling gels that are used for relieving joint pain and stiffness.
It is also found in many rub-on products that are used for relieving the pain and itching caused by insect bites, cold sores, hives, rashes, scabies, and minor burns.

Clears up Congestion

Camphor can relieve cough and congestion due to its decongestant properties.
This is the reason why it is a common ingredient in vaporizing rubs. It is usually mixed with oil, and then rubbed on the chest and the nose to clear up congestion. It is also used for treating asthma and bronchitis. Camphor can lower body temperature due to its febrifuge properties.

Alleviates Skin Problems

Besides reducing itching and skin irritation, camphor can help treat some common skin conditions like acne, warts, cold sores, and heat rash. It can also provide temporary relief in eczema. But in the long run, it can make the skin dry, which can aggravate the problem.
Moreover, camphor should not be used on broken skin, as it can be easily absorbed through broken or damaged skin. At high concentrations, camphor is highly toxic and it can cause poisoning.

Cures Fungal Infections of the Nail

Camphor can be helpful in treating toenail fungus, and fungal infections of the skin. You can mix a small amount of camphor and water, and apply the mixture on the affected area. Otherwise, you can mix it with lemon, eucalyptus oil, and menthol to treat toenail fungus.

Other Therapeutic Uses

Camphor can also stimulate the digestive system and improve digestion. It can stimulate the circulatory and the nervous system as well. The internal use of camphor is considered unsafe. Nevertheless, some people do use it internally to treat conditions like hysteria, nervousness, neuralgia, cough, and intestinal gas. The internal use of camphor can cause serious side effects, including death.

Other Important Uses

In Repellent Balls

Camphor has found several other uses and applications, apart from being a folk remedy.
Its strong smell can repel insects and moths, for which camphor is used as an insect and moth repellent. It has been used for making moth balls for a long time. In countries like China and Japan, it is employed for removing oil paints and varnish.

Used as Plasticizer

Camphor is used as a plasticizer for nitrocellulose. It is also used in fireworks and embalming. Solid camphor releases fumes, which can form a coating on metals and prevent them from rusting. This is the reason why many people keep solid camphor in their tool kits.

In Cosmetics

Camphor can help remove excess oil from the skin, which explains its inclusion in products like face washes, clarifying masks, and astringents.

For Religious Purposes

In Hindu religious ceremonies, it is burnt to create a holy flame. But the act of burning camphor leaves behind carbon deposits, for which it is presently burnt only in outdoor ceremonies.

As Flavoring Agent

In Asian countries, camphor is used as a flavoring agent in sweets. In India, it is used in desserts. In China, camphor was once used in confectionery, while the Arabs used it in their sweet and savory dishes.
Camphor that is used for culinary purposes is labeled as 'edible camphor', and is different from the one that is used for other purposes. The edible camphor is also known as green or raw camphor, and is used in a small quantity to impart flavor to sweets.
If taken in large doses, camphor can cause confusion, seizures, and irritability. Even topical application of a large amount of camphor may cause several side effects. Considering the toxicity of camphor, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has imposed certain restrictions on its uses.
The FDA allows camphor in products as long as its concentration is not higher than 11%. Products labeled as camphor oil, camphor liniment, camphorated oil, and camphorated liniment were banned by the FDA in 1980.
Camphor can easily cross the placental wall, for which pregnant women should better avoid this product. Breastfeeding mothers should also avoid camphor.