Say camphor oil and many people have visions of mothballs stuffed in a musty old closet somewhere. It’s true that camphor was a prime ingredient in repellents used to protect textiles from being eaten by moths, but the smell of our distilled white camphor essential oil is much subtler, with a strong mentholic top note and just a hint of the medicinal about it. In aromatherapy, pure camphor essential oil is used as a topical analgesic for sore muscles and joints, a general antiseptic, and an expectorant that can open respiratory passages and clear congestion.
Native to the East Asian countries of China, Japan and Taiwan, the camphor tree (Cinnamonum camphora) can grow up to 100 feet (35 meters) tall and has been used for medicinal and construction purposes for hundreds of years. The pungent camphor essential oil is extracted from the chipped wood, branches and stumps of the tree and then further fractionated to yield white, yellow, and brown camphor. The yellow and brown oil fractions can contain between 10% and 80% safrole, a toxic and carcinogenic compound, so they are never used in aromatherapy.
Historically, camphor oil was employed as a treatment for plague and an embalming ingredient in ancient Persia; camphor wood’s durability and insect repellent properties also made it a natural building material for Chinese temples and sailing ships. White camphor essential oil contains no safrole and is used in a variety of aromatherapy applications today. It is most well known as the primary ingredient of Chinese Tiger Balm, a salve used to treat sore muscles and sprains. The essential oil is used in dilution as a topical anaesthetic for muscle soreness and joint pain. Camphor essential oil may produce skin sensitization, so it should always be diluted in a carrier oil, lotion, or salve.
Camphor essential oil contains high levels of menthol, a cooling compound also found in peppermint oil that has expectorant and numbing analgesic properties. Thymol, another component of camphor oil, is a strong antimicrobial agent that is still added to commercial mouthwashes. The sharp, medicinal-minty smell of camphor oil can increase feelings of alertness and sensitivity to one’s surroundings—give yourself a whiff whenever you’re feeling tired or groggy and feel your senses stand to attention.