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What is Camphor Liniment?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Camphor liniment is a medicinal ointment that was once used for a variety of minor external maladies. It is easily absorbed through the skin and was commonly used to relieve itching and skin discomfort. The active ingredient in camphor liniment was considered soothing and made the skin feel cool. The liniment also slightly anesthetic and commonly served as a topical antimicrobial.

In 1980, the federal agency that governs drug ingredients in the United States imposed a total ban on products that were labeled as camphor liniment, camphorated liniment, camphorated oil or camphor oil. The agency also imposed an 11% limit on the amount of allowable camphor in all consumer products. Its topical use in the United States is now limited to medicated powders and salves. Restrictions on camphor liniment use in other countries varies.

Aside from its use in powders and as a salve ingredient, camphor is also typically found in cough suppressants. It also is frequently added to the water in residential room vaporizers to increase the decongestant properties of the vapor. In salve form, camphor infused products are commonly rubbed on a person’s chest to decrease congestion. Some physicians recommend small oral doses of camphor salve to treat minor heart problems and occasional fatigue as well.

Derived from the wood of one of several varieties of trees in the laurel family or from camphor basil, camphor can also be synthetically produced from turpentine oil. Besides medicinal purposes, camphor is used in cooking, as an embalming fluid and as a moth, snake, reptile and general insect repellent. In crystal form, it is frequently used to fend off live, invading insects from damaging formal insect collections displayed in boxes and books.

Hindu religious ceremonies commonly incorporate the burning of camphor into their rites. Camphor burns cool and leaves no residue, which represents consciousness in the religion. Many temples in India no longer burn camphor indoors to eliminate carbon deposits but still use it in outdoor ceremonies. Camphor scented candles are often used in religious rites and ceremonies as well.

Camphor was once commonly used to flavor many sweet and savory dishes in several countries. For culinary purposes, it is now used mostly to add sweetness to Asian foods and to enhance the tastes of East Indian desserts. Consumers are cautioned to only use camphor labeled specifically for edibility since crystallized camphor used in ceremonies can easily be mistaken for the edible variety and is sometimes toxic when eaten. Toxic reactions to ingestion normally include neuromuscular hyperactivity, irritability, seizures or confusion. Some of these symptoms have also been the result of topical applications of camphor.

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Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On Jul 27, 2014

@Lostnfound-- Actually the meaning behind the use of camphor by Hindus is very interesting. Burning the camphor tablet signifies ridding oneself of ego. And the light is symbolic of the knowledge that is shared with others.

By literally45 — On Jul 26, 2014

@fify-- I don't think that camphor products are limited. Camphor liniment specifically is no longer allowed, but that product was a little different and much stronger than the camphor products sold today. There were concerns over its safety and potential side effects.

You really don't need to purchase your camphor ointment from outside the US. The nearest store to me carries several camphor products in the salve aisle and two are directly imported from China and Thailand.

By fify — On Jul 26, 2014

I don't know why the use of camphor medicinally has been restricted in the US. I use a camphor ointment that I actually purchase online from outside the US. There are camphor ointments still on sale in stores in the US, but I prefer the original.

Camphor salve is a fantastic remedy for aches and pains, especially those caused by arthritis. It is my go to salve during the winter months when cold weather makes my knee arthritis act up. My mother also uses it regularly to treat neck pain caused by a neck injury. Camphor is a gem of a remedy and in my experience it's safe.

By Lostnfound — On Jul 24, 2014

I've seen the camphor tablets used in Hindu worship in Indian grocery stores. I asked a lady what they were and she told me. I think camphor stinks and I don't know why anyone would want to burn the stuff, but that's how they do it. I certainly don't have a problem with it.

I know you have to be careful with lip balm. If it has camphor in it, you probably shouldn't use it because it will eventually dry out your lips. I also know that many law enforcement officers carry camphor salve in case they work a crime scene where there is a dead body. Rubbing the salve under the nose helps mask the smell of the body. Gross, but true.

By Grivusangel — On Jul 23, 2014

The Watkins Company still makes liniment that contains camphor. They recommend it for sore muscles, strained muscles, etc.

My dad had bursitis in his shoulders and he swore by the Watkins Cream Liniment when he had a flare up. He coached girls basketball and softball and was always on the move, so he needed to maintain his flexibility in his arms and shoulders.

He always said the camphor in the liniment helped ease the tightness in his muscles, and helped get rid of the soreness. We kept a bottle around all the time when I was a kid.

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