Camphor is a substance that is processed from the wood and roots of the large evergreen camphor tree. It is the same strong-smelling herb which is used as an insect repellent in clothes cupboards and trunks. Camphor has a checkered history, but its many uses are now discontinued due to the possibility of toxicity. Once a popular “pick-me-up,” the blend of camphor in alcohol was found to cause liver damage.
The camphor tree can grow up to 35 meters (100 feet) and the active component is found in every part of the tree. The tree was found in Taiwan, China and Japan though now it is seen in other parts of Asia, South America, Florida and California. The camphor tree has to be around 50 years old before the oil can be extracted from it.
Camphor is extracted by the process of steam distillation from the wood which yields transparent crystals. The clippings, roots and wood chips of the camphor tree are processed to produce these camphor crystals and camphor oil. Once the oil is distilled, it is then filter-pressed and three types are produced, the white, yellow and brown. The white oil which has a fresh fragrance is the one which is used, as the yellow and brown are considered toxic and carcinogenic.
Though camphor oil does have certain toxic effects, it can be used externally without any damage. Camphor oil can be used in vapour therapy to help with respiratory disorders, dispel depression and also calm mental disorders. It appears to have a soothing influence on psychosomatic problems and also has some benefits if handled with care, for the skin. Camphor is also used for inflammations, arthritis and other muscular aches and pains, rheumatism and sprains. Furthermore, the oil is used in massage formulations, lip salve and inhalants. The camphor oil is an agent which eases bruises, inflammations, and joint pains.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned camphorated oil in 1980 after there were reports of poisoning through ingestion and skin absorption. The FDA has placed an outright ban on anything sold as camphor oil, camphorated oil, camphor liniment or camphorated liniment. But the use in topical creams and analgesic gels is permitted and considered safe by the FDA. These creams due to the presence of camphor produce a feeling of warmth, which helps in reduction of pain and aids relief. Products like Vicks VapoRub also contain camphor and the inhalation of this vapour helps to ease the cough.
Camphor oil is a strong stimulant and should be used with care. The oil can make some people feel totally wide awake and therefore should not be used at night. Camphor oil is not really used as massage oil in aromatherapy, as it is classified as a convulsant and neurotoxin. Overdosing can cause convulsions and vomiting and it should not be used by pregnant women and those suffering from epilepsy and asthma.