The plant cinnamomum camphora has a strong, sharp fragrance, and its essential oil has been used for many medicinal purposes, household uses and even can be found as a cooking ingredient in some cuisines. Camphor also is collected in a resinous, solid form from the plant. Camphor is a tree, when full-grown, with a woody bark and evergreen foliage. It is related to cinnamon, and is a member of the laurel family.
One of the oldest uses of camphor in its natural state was as a preservative for embalming the dead--in particular by the ancient Chinese. During the era of the Black Plague in Europe, a lump of camphor worn around the neck was said to ward off disease, which was an unfounded belief. Chemists have synthesized a man-made form of camphor in modern times, which is the most common origin for it now; however, camphor extracted from the tree is still widely available.
Camphor oil is frequently an ingredient in pain-numbing rubs or ointments, to be used externally. It helps pain from arthritis, muscle aches and bruising, but should not be applied on open wounds as it can scar internal tissue and slow healing. It also can be used as a stimulant rub, encouraging circulation in stiff or cold limbs. Internally, camphor is a reliable remedy for sinus or lung congestion, and acts as an expectorant when steam with camphor is breathed in. It also can help to reduce fever as an inhalant.
Camphor oil is a key ingredient in antibacterial and astringent cosmetic washes, to reduce acne or oily skin. It also is found in a processed white crystalline form, in which it can be used as a soap-making ingredient, as an insect repellent around the house and as a preservative. Cabinets made from the wood of camphor are popular for natural history collections, as they keep away moths, worms and other insects. In Japan and China, it was used as a varnish, as a paint remover for oil paints, as fragrant oil for burning and as a diluting ingredient in inks.
The kind of camphor used in cooking is not the kind used medicinally or around the house. Only camphor labeled edible should be used in cookery. It was a popular ingredient in candies in medieval Europe in its edible form, and still is used in sweet dishes in Indian cooking. It flavored some of the earliest ice cream, during the Tang Dynasty in China. It is mainly used in traditional Indian recipes now, and is sometimes called raw camphor or green camphor.
Camphor is a strong substance, similar to turpentine, and can be irritating to some people’s skin, eyes or nasal tissues. It should be used with care. It can be poisonous in large quantities, causing seizures, among other symptoms. It is also sold as a burnable resin for use in Hindu religious ceremonies celebrating Shiva; this form should be used just for its intended purpose and not for any medicinal or edible use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates that camphor should comprise no more than 11 percent of consumer products and discourages its use medicinally except in commercially manufactured products such as Vicks Vapo-Rub.