I am currently in need of detoxification : physical, mental, spiritual, literal. And so coming down the escalators in Ofuna station with five minutes to spare on my way to work and hesitatingly setting foot in the almost piously Japanese komeya shop in the Lumine Department Store (by far the most populated of any of the concessions there on that day, bustling with its expensive rice products, pots and clay crockery, artisanal wooden utensils, printed linens, prefectural pickles, chutneys, high end organic teas and all manner of pleasingly rendered, aesthetically very careful nipponiserie), I was quite excited to see, alongside oil pressed yuzu, hinoki, Japanese ginger and hakka mint essential oils, my first ever bottle of camphor.

My obsession with perfumery has for decades gone hand in hand with aromatherapy. And the first bible on that subject was hands down The Encylopaedia Of Essential Oils by Julia Lawless, which I had in this edition

– and which I read over and over again over the years until it fell apart. Somewhere in the house there are still disparate sections and pages, but it was the kind of book that I absorbed in stages – it was unemotional, but I was continually mesmerized by its highly informative descriptions of every essential oil in existence, most of them unobtainable for the average human being, with their origins, appearance, scent profile, uses and contra-indications – in fact, it was astonishing how many of the essences she mentioned were actually lethally toxic, even in small doses. Herbs and barks that had been used centuries ago in various apothecary concoctions but which had now been proven to be dreadfully poisonous were given extreme health warnings – : wormwood, broom, sassafras; pennyroyal – (hence, presumably, the suicidally ideational song by Nirvana, Pennyroyal Tea (“Sit and drink pennyroyal tea/ distill the life that’s inside of me…../give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/ so I can sigh eternally………). I remember going into a crystals and aroma type hippie dippie shop once in Moseley, Birmingham with my friend Helen and finding this oil on the wooden shelves next to all the gnarly roots and powders and nag champa incense sticks and Vishnu trinkets standing frighteningly alongside asafoetida – jesus christ what a smell – the only time I have felt so utterly brutalized and assaulted by an odour to the point of wanting to vomit that I just wanted desperately to rinse out my nasal hairs in crystalline spring water until I could smell it no more : a profoundly repugnant odour, a quick look just now tells me that this is also cardiotoxic in rats) – and immediately alerting the staff – they of course had a copy of the Lawless on their shelves – that they were actually selling something very dangerous and should desist from doing so immediately.

Camphor oil, which I am pretty sure I remember reading was also noxious, had also residually stayed in mind as something very dangerous, and in fact, it seems that ingestion of 5ml of camphorated oil can indeed cause death from convulsions in a small child. However, this type of oil – the dark coloured essences, are presumably now unavailable, for this precise reason. The clear oils – a different chemotype, have a long history of medicinal usage and have been used in Asian cultures for thousands of years for bronchial infections, sprains, swellings, and inflammation among other treatments. In Japan, the vast majority of the incense I love and use so much is usually an intriguing and enigmatic blend of agarwood, cloves, camphor, crushed seashells, cinnamon, benzoin, and patchouli, and I find I am somehow naturally drawn to the rigour and austerity of this smell, peculiar and ugly/beautiful though it may be (the smell of vapour rub; a little pepperminty, a little coniferous (I smell hiba trees); most definitely camphoraceous.

The oil I bought – which I kept sealed until getting home much later in the day – I can only imagine how strange and sinister a teacher would smell with leaked camphor oil dripping from his suit pockets – was fascinating for me to experience. Not quite as sinus-busting as I was hoping for, it is nevertheless superbly head-clearing and tonifying, relaxing, and serious simultaneously, and was sold alongside a small, neat wooden vessel upon which you can dropper the oil and experience ambiently : it puts me in a quiet and liminal space, somewhat removed from core reality (or seen in another way, actually much closer to it), and nicely complements the other spiced and incensed aroma elements I have dotted strategically around the house.

I was also very eager to try it therapeutically though. How would it be to actually take a camphor bath?

Very careful to read about the use of camphor oil properly first (our sixteen year old nephew recently had an extreme allergic reaction to overusing lavender and tea tree essential oils and then adding Radox on top in the bath – I also react badly to lemon, grapefruit and orange in bath water and so only ever use them as hand balms – it is always useful to remember how potent and real essential oils are; the concentrated aliveness of a plant or tree or fruit or flower positively swimming with stimulation that can lead to fully sensitizing reactions on the skin), and yet at the same time I am an extremist and always have been – so must always try, for the sake of common sense, to mitigate my own natural instinctive tendencies.

Showering first a long time to be clean – as is always the way here – I then put in several drops of camphor oil into the hot water and immersed myself. Instinctively I could tell that this was one of those oils that naturally ‘suit’ me (inner alarms bells go off very quickly inside me otherwise; I get glitchy and twitchy and ‘on alert’); the tingling sensation in my limbs delightful in this case, the scent more warming, more hinoki-like than I had been anticipating (camphor is very much an inherently hot and cold essence; in one room I have combined it with hakka mint, and just inhaling this combination is like being alone for a moment in the snow; I can feel it keenly, purifying my brain and mind). And yet in the body, later, I felt like I had been given a hot muscle rub; my face slightly ruddy initially (camphor is excellent for blood flow and circulation)- relaxed, more centred; more ‘in tune’.


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21 responses to “CAMPHOR

  1. Cath

    We’re in sync again?😄 I was in need of some similar type of purification last night, wanted to clear the air inside our home and my head with it, and added a few drops of frankincense to my humidifier slash aroma diffuser. I’m an on and off aromatherapy freak, hubby used to call me “haabu hakase”, the herb professor or doctor bc I like to resort to essential oils and herbs for all sorts of things. Somehow it feels so much more satisfying to handle something with naturals rather than resorting to a pill, the feeling that oils have more healing power than the alternatives.

  2. gunmetal24

    I did a big detox recently although a very different one. Deactivating both Facebook and IG brought alot of clarity to my daily routine as there was significantly less ‘noise’. I have been missing the smell of vapour rub. I think I am going to pick up a bottle of Vicks or Tiger Balm the next time I go out. I get what you mean with the potential dangers of essential oils. I’ve used them brazenly in the past in the shower/ bath and always gotten away with it until my skin developed a bad rash from oak moss dilution.I have been careful ever since.

    • Different people react in wildlly varying ways to different things. I get irritated when most Japanese people refuse to believe that I am allergic to onions, for example (“Is there really such an allergy?”):

      Oakmoss … I have a vague memory of something similarly happening to me. Must be the reason they banned it. Thyme oil also can really burn.

      The upshot is that essential oils really should be used in moderation and with caution.

  3. ONWingsofSaffron

    I had to smile reading your description of asafoetida: “a profoundly repugnant odour”! So vile it is to you, that I hesitate to say that I love using it when cooking Indian food. Just like the smell of popping black mustard seeds or of raw, organic cold pressed coconut oil at high heat, “hing” as asafoetida is called in Hindi is the olfactory marker of Southern Indian / Sri Lankan food, and therefore the gate to culinary heaven for me!

    • But do you use the essential oil?

      I adore Indian food too and was pleased with a curry I made yesterday afternoon – I would be interested trying the ground stuff as a spice or herb – but the oil was acrid beyond comprehension ; my brain screamed metalically.

      There is supposed to be an essential oil of garlic made as well which has medicinal uses but which smells so vile in intense concentration it is unusable.

      I might have to track down some asafoetida powder at the local Indian spice shop tucked dow n a side street – I do like mustard seeds as well.

      • OnWingsOFsaffron

        No, you‘re quite right of course, I‘m not referring to the essential oil but rather the powder which has the consistency of powdered gelatin. You add 1/2 or 1/3 tsp to the onions before making your vegetable, lentil or meat curries. It obviously doesn’t smell „pleasant“, more like dried onion powder with a bit like ground nigella seeds. But like Thai fish sauce which isn’t an olfactory pleaser it certainly enhances the overall dish.

      • Ah !

        Thai fish sauce is so fascinatingly attractive repellent, isn’t it ? But as you say, though I am no grand chef, when I add it there is definitely a profound influence over the whole dish.

        I hope you get to smell asafoetida oil one day. It is SHOCKING

  4. Robin

    Ric swears that he’s allergic to celery. He says it makes his legs go numb. So onions aren’t a stretch.

    Once he was drawing me a bath and shook in the better part of a small bottle of orange oil. (He’d used copious quantities of lavender oil in past without incident.) I didn’t think anything of it (except how nice it smelled) until a growing itchy warmth all over the bottom half of me quickly escalated into a full-scale inferno of the skin. I learned the hard way that essential oils can be that kind of powerful.

    Thank you for a post on a fascinating subject, my dear Neil.

    • Yes orange – no way for me either but as you know I make hand balms with it all the time.

      What are your thoughts on camphor ?

      • Robin

        I’ve never really delved into camphor, which is why I enjoyed this post of yours so much. I think I had a few too many run-ins with Vick’s Vapo Rub as a kid to be particularly keen on it now. Even my eucalyptus foam bath Ric bought me is a bit of a stretch. A little too close to Pinesol for my liking. But the juniper by the same company, while equally bracing, avoids those unfortunate medicinal/industrial associations, and I adore it.

        A little bit of orange, as in your Vaseline balms, would be lovely. I use orange quite a bit in the winter as an essential oil scent for my cabin, where it acts like olfactory Vitamin C for the soul.

  5. Z

    I’m so fascinated by the crushed seashells in the incense you mentioned….? Glad you are participating in some self-care. Honestly it seems like all we are able to do to help digest and recover from all the fun feelings of dread and anxiety that now occur regularly. Camphor in an unadulterated form seems divine…

    I love your descriptions of having such INTENSE reactions to things. I am often the same way. Such is the life of passion!

    I finally responded to your email by the way! Happy Valentine’s to you two, at least stateside.

  6. Oh how delicious a camphor bath sounds right about now. I would absolutely adore that.

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