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What is Camphor?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Camphor is a naturally occurring aromatic compound that was derived from the camphor laurel until the 1920s, when chemists successfully synthesized it. The distinctive odor is familiar to many consumers, as it has been traditionally used in mothballs and some medical preparations to reduce itching. It is also used in a wide variety of other applications, along with other similar plant derived chemicals, including film manufacture, plastics, lacquers, and some explosives. The family of plant compounds to which it belongs is known as the terpenoids, and it includes other aromatics like menthol and citral.

The formal name for the camphor laurel is Cinnamonum camphora, and the large trees are found widely scattered in Asia, Japan, and India. When full grown, the plants can reach a height of 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 meters), and will often spread out so that they are wider than they are tall. These evergreen trees flourish in tropical environments, and in some parts of the world, they are considered a highly invasive species because they have no natural predators to keep their growth in check, and will choke out native species. To extract camphor, the leaves and bark of the trees are processed through a distiller, yielding a white crystalline compound with the formula C10H16O.

Most products use synthetic camphor. It is synthesized most commonly from turpentine, another aromatic plant compound with similar properties. A series of chemical reactions is used to create a camphor compound, which is then packaged for sale or used in the manufacture of other products. Byproducts of the process can be used to create other useful chemicals. Most manufacturing plants that make synthetic forms of the compound handle other terpenoids as well, for maximum efficiency.

In addition to manufacturing uses, camphor also appears in some ethnic cuisines, including in foods from China and India, although only in small amounts. Ingesting large amounts can result in neurological and respiratory problems, along with seizures, and when used for culinary purposes, it should be used with care. More commonly, camphor poisoning appears after someone has accidentally ingested a liniment containing the compound, or applied a liniment in excess, causing the body to absorb too much through the skin. A poison control center should be contacted if someone is manifesting symptoms of poisoning, and if possible, the labeling for the product ingested should be saved and given to the emergency medical provider.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon967738 — On Aug 29, 2014

I find it hard to understand, from this article at least, why camphor is now mostly synthesized; is there a problem from making it naturally using cinnamonum camphora? It just seems odd to me that many things, this included, are synthesized when they have a natural and easily obtained source that could be used instead.

By anon335576 — On May 21, 2013

@ anon144193: They administer it to males in the Egyptian military.

By anon144193 — On Jan 19, 2011

I've heard that in some countries camphor is used to inhibit sexual desire in young men at university canteens,prisons and army barracks. Is there any truth in this?

By sapphire12 — On Dec 18, 2010

In recent years, some camphor uses have been phased out, or at least lessened. Mothballs, for example, are used much less often these days; people either use other products, such as cedar balls, rather than traditional mothballs. It is also becoming increasingly common that people merely pack things in more airtight containers, such as zipping plastic bags or airtight plastic tubs, eliminating the need for mothballs at all. While mothballs are still the most effective deterrent from moths and other insects, the smell has just become too much for people, and sticks in clothing.

By widget2010 — On Dec 17, 2010

I find it hard to understand, from this article at least, why camphor is now mostly synthesized; is there a problem from making it naturally using cinnamonum camphora? It just seems odd to me that many things, this included, are synthesized when they have a natural and easily-obtained source that could be used instead.

By anon19671 — On Oct 17, 2008

what is the manufacturing process for camphor from alpha pinene?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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