What is camphor?

Camphor mothballs.

Camphor is a naturally occurring aromatic compound derived from camphor laurel until the 1920s when chemists successfully synthesized it. The characteristic odor is familiar to many consumers as it is traditionally used in mothballs and some medications to reduce itching. It is also used in a wide variety of other applications, along with other chemicals derived from similar plants, including the manufacture of films, plastics, lacquers and some explosives. The family of plant compounds to which it belongs is known as terpenoids and includes other aromatics such as menthol and citral.

Products that contain camphor can be used to reduce irritation and speed up the healing of cold sores and other sores.

The formal name of the camphor laurel is Cinnamonum camphora and the large trees are widely dispersed in Asia, Japan and India. When fully grown, plants can reach a height of 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 meters), and 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 are considered highly invasive species because they have no natural predators to keep their growth in check and will smother native species. For the extraction of camphor, the leaves and bark of the trees are processed in a still, giving rise to a white crystalline compound with the formula C10H16O.

Most products use synthetic camphor. It is most commonly synthesized 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. By-products from the process can be used to create other useful chemicals. Most factories that produce synthetic forms of the compound also deal with other terpenoids, for maximum efficiency.

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

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