Monday, January 9, 2012

Essential oils: Camphor

Camphor is a component in essential oils (for instance, lavender can have a camphorous odour in some species). It's used a lot in the food industry to flavour sweets and cough products, and it's used in embalming, fireworks, and rust prevention. Solid camphor balls are used as a moth repellant.

In cosmetics, it's considered a plasticizer - it's used in nail polish to allow it to dry well but remain flexible - and it's added to topical pain relieving products as it is a vasodilatory substance (meaning it "refers to the widening of blood vessels"), and it offers that sensation of cooling we've been reading about with  menthol and 1,8-cineole. It's often found in combination with peppermint/menthol and eucalyptus in cold treatment products, but it is not considered a cough suppressant.

Please note: There is camphor (the ketone) and camphor (the essential oil). The information above is about the ketone found in essential oils. I'll put the words "essential oil" after camphor when I'm talking about that. 

Camphor is found in all manner of plants, including lavender, sage, Mexican oregon, rosemary, sweet basil, and cinnamon, to name a few.

Be careful with this essential oil! The FDA allows it at a maximum of 11% because it is poisonous. For a child, eating 2 grams could be toxic and 4 grams could be fatal! (Reference: Wikipedia, Medscape news.)

As an aside, I am so sick and tired of people telling me that propylene glycol is bad for you because it can be found anti-freeze. Being in anti-freeze doesn't make something toxic! Do you think you should avoid camphor because it's used to make dead people look nice before the funeral, repel moths, make things explode? No. Don't make something bad by association. (Although having said that, the glycols are in anti-freeze because it lowers the freezing temperature of water, which is a good thing!) Upon further thought, though, this argument isn't a great one because camphor is, in fact, toxic at relatively low doses...

Join me tomorrow for more fun with camphor - this time, the essential oil!

7 comments:

Sara @Osmosis said...

I've been meaning to ask you what the difference is for Polypropylene glycol(aka Miralax). Would that be also useful in products? Hope that's not a dumb question.

Diane@Peaceful Acres Farm said...

Susan, I am new to your site and just bought 2 of your e-books through Lotion Crafters! I love your simplicity in explaining what to me is a VERY complex concept...science!

I am a small farmer and herbalist and began with making my own herbal infused salves that have been very popular. As I began playing around with hard lotion bars I got very brave and whipped up a oil & water lotion!! YIKES didn't know what I was getting into but we loved my flops. I've been researching why different things failed and finally have a small understanding of it. I'm hoping that by reading through your books I'll get a better grasp of things and eventually have a marketable product. I truly appreciate all that you are making available! Thanks!

p said...

I've been wondering about that, too, Sara! I wonder why polypropylene glycol works as a laxative.

Blue Feather Soaps and Body Care said...

Actually Ethylene Glycol used in anti-freeze is toxic when swallowed. It's sweet and attractive to animals. Some companies have changed their formulas to use the safer Propylene Glycol in an effort to be more environmentally conscious... so wouldn't that make PG a good thing, even if it does lower the freezing point of water?

~ Gillian

Sara @Osmosis said...

I do believe I understand how it works as a laxative. I was told the molecules are too large to be absorbed in the colon and hydroscopic so it keeps everything moist in the colon.

Helena said...

Just love this idea. I finally feel I can have a personal teacher that I trust, who will guide me to making a good product. Very excited to be part of a group making the same product, at the same time. very encouraging, and conparing results will be great.Thanks so much for your dedication, you are special.

Aromatherapy Guild said...

Just a couple of notes on what you said about the difference between Camphor and Camphor Essential Oil. First, let me apologize for not linking sources (lack of time), but if you like, please contact me and I can reference any questions you may have.

Camphor is a word that can refer to different things: It can refer to the Camphor molecule (in your picture above) that you correctly point out is a common component of many essential oils including lavender, rosemary, fennel, coriander, blue tansy, yarrow, marigold, juniper, sage, basil, thyme, cinnamon, and, of course, the Camphor Laurel (Cinnamomum camphora) from which it gets its name.

Pure Camphor (the molecule) is a white, pasty or granular substance that is largely synthesized in industry (for purity), but is very commonly produced the old fashioned way by distillation of the Camphor Laurel wood in India and elsewhere where it is used in ceremonies (like Puja in Hinduism), as a food ingredient, an insect repellent, etc. The essential oil is typically made from the pasty substance, not directly from the plant material, and actually produces three separate distillates: yellow, white and brown.

When you buy "Camphor Essential Oil," the type used commonly in perfumery and by flavorists, you are typically buying the white variety, which ironically, has very little of the Camphor molecule! (The pungent smell is due to the high amount of 1,8-cineol) The yellow variety has a bit more, but it's more crude than the white, and not commonly used. The brown has much more, but is heavily restricted as it contains high amounts of Safrol which, when isolated, is used in the manufacture of the designer drug Ecstasy.

To make it a bit more confusing, essential oils can also be distilled directly from the plant material (leaves, twigs, etc.). Those oils do have high concentrations of Camphor, but are almost non-existent in the consumer marketplace, particularly in the West. Among common essential oils, french lavender (Lavandula stoechas, rosemary and sage have the most, while common lavender oil (Lavandula angustifolia has far less (typically < 1%).

The FDA's 11% limit of Camphor does not relate to White Camphor essential oil. It relates to the pasty white substance, the molecule (particularly Camphor USP, the pure pharmaceutical grade version found in OTC medication like Tiger Balm). White Camphor essential oil is no more dangerous than most any other essential oil, but like all essential oils, it is highly concentrated, and demands common sense precautions in its use and application. Hope that helps!