Essential Oils

The Multifaceted E.O. Constituent: Camphor

Today’s blog post is provided with permission from AIRASE

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Researchers in South Africa tackled a review of camphor and its products such as camphor oil. The 20-page review covered a lot of health and wellness territory, giving a new appreciation for this fragrant wood and essential oil constituent.

During the time of the plague called “Black Death,” camphor was a valuable fumigant and later found use as a perfume ingredient and in embalming fluid. Other uses ranged from an ingredient in household cleaners and as a flavoring food additive.

Beyond those divergent uses, the study authors note that camphor was traditionally applied as an analgesic for minor muscle aches and pains. They write, “Camphor exhibits a number of biological properties such as insecticidal, antimicrobial, antiviral, anticoccidial [coccidia are microscopic parasites], anti-nociceptive [anti-pain], anticancer, and antitussitive [coughing] activities.”1 They note it is also used as a skin penetration enhancer.

However, the researchers also report that camphor is a very toxic substance and as a result, the essential oils from plant species that contain camphor are never listed as GRAS or Generally Regarded As Safe to consume orally. Camphor is poisonous when ingested. Data from a 2001 report by the American Association of Poison Control Centers Toxic Exposure Surveillance System (TESS), showed 8,505 exposures to camphor products that resulted in many mild symptoms and 89 moderate to severe outcomes, but thankfully no fatalities.2

The study lists a number of exotic plants that contain camphor: Artemisia annua, Piper angustifolium, Sassafras albidum, and Jasonia candicans. The more well-known essential oils that contain the constituent camphor are coriander, juniper, lavandin, rosemary, sage, blue tansy, Idaho tansy, and yarrow.

The camphor in the lavender species lavandin (Lavandula x hybrida) makes it a hotter lavender (definitely not for burns!), but it also gives lavandin an added boost as an antimicrobial.

One interesting section of this camphor review explains how camphor is created synthetically. “Turpentine is used as the source of α-pinene through a distillation process; α-pinene is converted into camphene through the catalysis of a strong acid with acetic acid as the solvent; the camphene then undergoes Wagner-Meerwein rearrangement into the isobornyl cation, which is captured by acetate; the isobornyl acetate subsequently formed is hydrolysed to become isoborneol, which is finally converted to camphor through dehydrogenation.”3 It seems Mother Nature does it more elegantly in a natural process.

Natural camphor “is obtained through distillation of the wood from the camphor laurel tree (Cinnamomum camphora) found especially in Borneo and Taiwan; the Borneo camphor tree (Dryobalanops aromatica) and the East African camphorwood tree (Ocotea usambarensis). In Asia, a major source of camphor is camphor basil (Ocimumkilimandscharicum). Camphor is also present as a major component of many aromatic plant species.”4 (As listed above.)

The study reviews research showing antimicrobial activity. In a yarrow study, data “analysis revealed camphor to be the more active compound together with 1,8 cineole, as notable activity against C. albicans and C. krusei was reported.” The study also reports that “In a 1/100 dilution, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) oil, containing mainly camphor, was one of the most efficient antibacterial oils having antibacterial activity against two Gram-negative (Pseudomonas fluorescens) and (Serratia liquefaciens) and four Gram-positive (Brochothrix thermosphacta, Carnobacterium  piscicola, Lactobacillus curvatus and Lactobacillus sake) bacteria.”5

Researchers of this study report on the danger synthetic pesticides pose to the integrity of the earth’s ozone layer and other environmental buffers. The need of safer alternatives, they say, is urgent, and they write that monoterpenoids “believed to aid plants in chemical defense against phytophagous insects are capable of toxic interference with the biochemical and physiological functions of herbivorous insects. Numerous studies have indicated that camphor has insect repellent activity against stored-product pests.”6 Imagine—an insecticide that is natural and does not inject Roundup® (glyphosate) into the food supply.

An important caveat was added to the study’s conclusion in speaking of camphor’s medical properties. “It is important to note that bioactivity was determined in many cases using an essential oil rich in camphor and not pure camphor. Due to the high percentage of camphor, these activities may be incorrectly attributed to camphor, whilst synergism seems more likely. . . . Other studies showed pure camphor did not possess the same activity as the neat essential oil.”7

Fortuitously, the full study is available for downloading at no charge on PubMed at: (Click on PDF).


  1. Chen W, Vermaak I, Viljoen A, “Camphor—A Fumigant during the Black Death and a Coveted Fragrant Wood in Ancient Egypt and Babylon—A Review,”Molecules. 2013 May 10;18(5):5434-5454.
  2. Study footnote 106: Manoguerra AS, et al., “Camphor Poisoning: An evidence-based practice guideline for out-of-hospital management, Clin Toxicol. 2006, 44, 357-370.
  3. Chen W, op cited.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.

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