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.