Camphor and phenol are ingredients often used together in over-the-counter remedies used to treat pain and itching. They are mild topical pain relievers and are also ingredients in lip balm for dry, chapped lips. Camphor and phenol are used to treat minor burns, cold sores, insect bites or stings, itchy skin, abrasions and mild sunburn.
Camphor is an essential oil derived from the camphor laurel tree native to China and Japan but now also grows in southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. It is extracted from the leaves and twigs of mature trees over 50 years old. The essential oil is combined with a carrier oil or cream and applied to the skin. The Chinese traditionally used camphor for the treatment of arthritis and muscle pain, used it in embalming, and used the vapors to treat coughs and colds.
Camphor essential oil contains terpenes, lipid molecules that occur widely in nature, that are often soothing to the skin and have antiseptic properties. Camphor is antiseptic, analgesic and a counter-irritant, according to the University of Kentucky. It creates a cool sensation on the skin that masks pain and itching. It is often used in liniments for muscle pain along with ingredients like eucalyptus and oil of wintergreen. Camphor is an ingredient in widely used over-the-counter remedies such as Blistex, Campho-Phenique and Vicks VapoRub.
Phenol, once known as carbolic acid, was first isolated from coal tar in 1834 and was used as a disinfectant in the 19th century. Phenol is found in nature in animal waste and organic material, but it is mostly manufactured synthetically now. Phenol is manufactured to create resins, nylon and other synthetic fibers. In medical preparations, it is primarily used as an antiseptic. It is an ingredient in mouthwashes, sore throat lozenges, throat sprays and skin preparations.
Ingesting phenol or camphor can be toxic. Exposure to high levels of phenol causes liver damage, diarrhea and anemia and can even lead to paralysis and severe injury to heart, liver, kidneys and lungs. Camphor is also potentially toxic. Don't use products containing camphor or phenol if you are pregnant or nursing. Because of their small size, children are more at risk of accidentally ingesting toxic amounts of these products. Keep products containing camphor or phenol away from children, cautions the University of Minnesota. If you are using these products on children, follow the directions on the labels exactly. Don't apply to large areas of skin, and don't apply more than four times a day.
Oatmeal and aloe vera are safer to use than camphor and phenol and are soothing for irritated, itchy or sunburned skin. Essential oils such as eucalyptus and rosemary are safe for muscle pain when diluted in a carrier oil and applied to the skin or when the vapors are inhaled for upper respiratory symptoms. For all products, including camphor and phenol, read the entire label including the safety information and use the product only according to instructions.