Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora) is a terpene (organic compound) that’s commonly used in creams, ointments, and lotions. Camphor oil is the oil extracted from the wood of camphor trees and processed by steam distillation. It can be used topically to relieve pain, irritation, and itching. Camphor is also used to relieve chest congestion and inflammatory conditions.

It has a strong odor and taste and is easily absorbed through the skin. Camphor is currently made out of turpentine, but it’s still safe to use as long as you use it correctly. It has the potential for side effects, especially if you use it in high doses. Never take camphor internally or apply it to broken skin, as it can be toxic.

Camphor has a wide variety of topical uses due to its antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. It can be used to treat skin conditions, improve respiratory function, and relieve pain. Continue reading to learn more about the different uses for camphor and its supporting scientific evidence.

Camphor for skin

Lotions and creams containing camphor can be used to relieve skin irritation and itchiness and may help to improve the overall appearance of skin. It has antibacterial and antifungal properties that make it useful in healing infections. A 2015 animal study found camphor to be effective in treating wounds and ultraviolet light-induced wrinkles, making it a potential ingredient in anti-aging cosmetics. This may be due to its ability to increase elastin and collagen production. Use a camphor cream on the area you’d like to treat at least once per day.

Relieves pain

Applying camphor to the skin helps to relieve pain and inflammation. A small 2015 study found that a spray containing natural ingredients such as camphor, menthol, and essential oils of clove and eucalyptus was effective in relieving mild to moderate pain. The spray was applied to the joints, shoulders, and lower back for a period of 14 days. You may feel a tingling, warming, or cooling sensation when you use camphor products. Apply a camphor spray or ointment to the affected area several times per day.

Heals burns

Camphor balms and creams can be used to heal burn wounds. A 2018 animal study found that an ointment containing camphor, sesame oil, and honey decreased the healing time for second-degree burn wounds and was found to be more beneficial than using Vaseline. To use, apply an ointment to the affected area once a day.

Treats arthritis

Camphor products such as Icy Hot and Biofreeze may be effective in relieving pain, inflammation, and swelling due to arthritis. The hot or cold sensations that arise after application of these creams may distract you from the pain. Camphor has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects in animal models that are useful in treating arthritis. To use, apply the camphor cream to any affected areas several times per day.

Treats toenail fungus

The antifungal properties of camphor make it beneficial in treating toenail fungus. Research from 2011 found that using Vicks VapoRub, which contains camphor as well as menthol and eucalyptus oil, was effective in treating toenail fungus. In the study, 15 of 18 people showed positive results after using the ointment for 48 weeks. To use, apply Vicks VapoRub to the affected toenails a few times per day.

Relieves congestion and coughing

Camphor oil works as a decongestant and cough suppressant. According to a 2010 study, vapor rub was most effective in relieving night cough, congestion, and sleep difficulty in children with upper respiratory tract infections.

To use, place 2 teaspoons of Vicks VapoRub in a bowl of hot water. Hold your head over the bowl and cover your head with a towel as you inhale the vapors. You can also apply the balm to your chest or feet and then cover them with socks. Avoid putting it in or around your nostrils.

Antispasmodic

Camphor products may also be used as a muscle rub. It may help to relieve muscle cramps, spasms, and stiffness. A 2004 study found that camphor has antispasmodic and relaxant properties. To use, massage a muscle rub such as Bengay onto your sore muscles a few times a day.

Other uses

Scientific research is limited for some of the purported uses for camphor and the evidence is largely anecdotal. Camphor oil may also be used to treat:

Camphor is generally safe for adults when it’s used correctly. Lotions or creams containing small amounts of camphor can be applied to your skin. Never use undiluted camphor or products containing more than 11 percent camphor. Always do a skin patch test before using camphor on your skin. Apply a small amount of the camphor product to your inner forearm and wait 24 hours to see if any reaction occurs.

Minor side effects such as redness and irritation can occur when using camphor topically. Camphor products should not be used on broken or injured skin because the body could absorb toxic levels. It also can cause respiratory problems such as coughing and wheezing when inhaled. Avoid contact with your eyes.

Don’t use more than 1 tablespoon of camphor solution per quart of water when using it through steam inhalation. Do not heat products containing camphor, such as Vicks VapoRub or Bengay, in the microwave as they have the potential to explode. Never ignite camphor as it has been shown to cause burns.

Note: Camphor should never be ingesting internally as this can cause serious side effects and even death. Signs of camphor toxicity appear within 5 to 90 minutes of ingestion. Symptoms include burning of the mouth and throat, nausea, and vomiting.

Taking camphor internally and using it topically is thought to cause liver damage. Don’t use camphor if you have any medical conditions affecting your liver. You also shouldn’t take camphor if you have asthma or epilepsy.

Do not use camphor products if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as it has the potential to cause birth defects. Children under the age of 2 should not use camphor products at all. Ingesting camphor has been shown to be fatal to toddlers, even in small doses. It can also cause seizures in children.

Only the white camphor oil is safe for health uses. Brown and yellow camphor oil contains high amounts of safrole. This makes them toxic and cancer-causing. Most products you find will only use white camphor oil. If you are buying pure camphor oil, make sure it is the white oil.

Most camphor products come in the form of a cream, ointment, or balm that can be applied to your skin. You can find sprays and liquid bath soaks. Some anti-itch and shaving creams contain camphor. Some beauty products like face wash, nail polish, and ChapStick contain camphor. It’s also a common ingredient in insect repellents.

Popular products containing camphor include:

  • Tiger Balm
  • Vicks VapoRub
  • Bengay
  • Icy Hot
  • Biofreeze

Camphor has the potential to bring many benefits to your health if it’s used properly. Make sure you always follow manufacturers’ instructions and use exactly as directed. Speak to your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns regarding the use of camphor. You can also discuss any health issues you are intending to treat with camphor.