Is lip balm addictive?

An urban legend tells of people developing addictions to lip balm containing camphor, among other ingredients, because of a mystery ingredient that makes you buy more of the stuff. The myth has been debunked numerous times, but it persists [Mikkelson].

Some alternative medicine sources cite a so-called "narcotic" effect of the smell of camphor oil that can be addictive in excess. However, WebMD does not list addiction as one of the possible side effects of camphor use [WebMD].

Alternative Uses and Medical Concerns

As a quick online search will reveal, camphor is a popular ingredient in alternative therapies for treating acne and eczema, because it appears to reduce the redness and irritation associated with these troublesome skin conditions.

Lotions and compresses sold for acne and eczema treatment containing cooling ingredients such as camphor and menthol may provide temporary relief, but in the long run they actually can dry out the skin, making the problem worse over the long run, especially in cases of eczema [Dermis].

Likewise, camphor is used to treat heat rash, scabies and other recurring itch conditions, but it hasn't been shown to provide anything more than temporary relief from symptoms associated with these conditions [WebMD].

Its misuse can cause significant medical problems, however. In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of products containing concentrations of camphor stronger than 11 percent, but many of these products continue to be sold around the world without a prescription [Boston Public Health Commission].

Even in small doses, camphor consumption can cause fatal poisoning in children and infants. A lethal dose for adults is 0.14 ounces (4 grams), but for children or infants it can be as little as 0.02 ounces (0.5 grams) [Inchem.org].

Because it's absorbed easily, camphor can cross mucous barriers, including the placental wall separating a fetus from its mother. Therefore, use by pregnant or nursing women is discouraged strongly. For this reason, it should never be applied to broken or damaged skin [WebMD].

Even though some folk remedies call for it, medical authorities discourage taking camphor orally -- it can cause blood poisoning, liver damage or kidney damage in strong enough quantities.