Camphor, a highly flammable crystalline substance, has been used in India since early Vedic times (c. 1750 BC). It was used to start the yajna fire lit to perform Vedic rituals and continues to be used for Hindu rituals to this day.
Ancient Aryans are believed to have indulged in animal sacrifice. These offerings were made to Agni, the fire god. The aroma from the camphor and spices helped mask the foul smell of burning flesh, and their antiseptic property helped keep flies and insects away. Hindus still use camphor to ignite a cremation pyre.
Ancient Jews, too, sacrificed animals at the Jewish temple. Holy anointing oil and incense were extensively used in the Jewish temple. The scents from these incenses helped mask the foul smell of burning sacrificial carcasses.
Camphor was used to fumigate localities affected by the plague, outbreaks of which were common in the ancient world, including Egypt (Chen et al., 2013). In Persia, too, it was viewed as a remedy against the plague. Atharva Veda mentions rubbing camphor on the abdomen as a treatment for urine retention. Chants and mantras accompanied the treatment.
In Ayurveda, camphor mixed with oil relieves inflammation caused by arthritis, sprains, rheumatism, and muscular pains. The oil acts on the sensory nerves of the peripheral nervous system and subdues inflammation. A mix of camphor, Eucalyptus, and other oils are used for a synergistic effect.
Camphor has a dual hot-and-cold action. When first applied, the oil numbs the muscles and emanates a feeling of coolness. Slowly, this cooling is replaced by warmth as the blood flow to the affected region increases, reducing stress and leading to reduced inflammation.
There is not enough evidence to support its use in treating toenail fungus, hemorrhoids, warts, etc., although it is prescribed for these ailments in Ayurveda. Other Ayurvedic applications include use in cardiac stimulation, as a remedy for hysteria, and to treat diarrhea.
Overdose can lead to convulsions and vomiting, especially in pregnant women. People suffering from epilepsy and asthma were advised against the use of camphor. The oil is no longer used in aromatherapy as it is suspected to be a convulsant and neurotoxin.
It is used to decongest the chest as an expectorant and a febrifuge. Several camphor-based decongestants are available in the market, like the popular Vicks VapoRub™.
Camphor’s anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial properties make it a popular remedy for colds, flu, and bronchitis. A study showed that the compound cinnamaldehyde present in camphor helps retard the progression of adenovirus (the common cold virus responsible for upper respiratory tract ailments) (Liu et al., 2009).
Camphor should not be directly applied to broken skin as it enters the body rapidly and is poisonous in high concentrations. Camphor is a very toxic substance, and numerous cases of camphor poisoning (Chen et al., 2013) have been documented.
The anti-fungal properties of the essential oil were validated in a study. (Pragadheesh et al., 2013). Anti-depressant properties traditionally attributed to camphor oil were studied and validated through experiments on rats (Rabadia et al., 2013). The oil was observed to reduce human sperm mobility, leading to the claim that the oil has contraceptive properties (Mansee et al., 2010).