Zam-Buk is a popular and inexpensive herbal ointment found in most medicine cabinets in South Africa for over 100 years. Earth Clinic was first introduced to this vibrant green salve last summer after getting to know members of the South African expat community here in Los Angeles. “What’s this, you’ve never heard of Zam-Buk?” Apparently, everyone knows about Zam-Buk, just not Americans.
Intrigued, we asked for more information and learned Zam-Buk is considered a cure-all balm in South Africa, treating everything from burns and cuts to asthma and coughs.
Zam-Buk ointment was first patented in 1902 by Charles Edward Fulford, whose Zam-Buk Company of Leeds, England, sold it as an herbal balm and antiseptic ointment.
Zam-Buk was advertised throughout the early to mid part of the 20th century to be effective for a wide range of ailments, including cuts, bruises, dry and rough hands, elbows and feet, sprains, stomach ulcers, hemorrhoids (piles), colds, toothaches, and muscle pain and stiffness.
The exact source of the name is unknown but the word zambuk once commonly referred to ambulance-men and first aiders at rugby league matches in Australia and New Zealand. The ‘zambuk’ would race across the pitch to help an injured player. The name was eventually replaced in the 1970s, with ‘trainers’ and ‘runners’. ¹
However, for decades Zam-Buk was a critical healing ointment to rugby players who got cut on the field.
“The product itself was an important first-aid medicine for any cuts or abrasions of the skin. In a time long before anti-biotics, a footballer could come to permanent grief merely from scraping his knee on the ground and it becoming infected. Zam-Buk was a recognised treatment that could successfully kill germs that had entered the skin. Many of the Zam-Buk adverts used headlines such as “Do you realise the danger of a poisoned finger? Death often lurks in a cut.” ¹
Today, Zam-Buk is most frequently used in South Africa to relieve itching and pain.
Zam-Buk Ointment Uses
Zam-Buk ointment is used for the following ailments or symptoms:
- Rough Elbows
- Chapped Lips
- Cracked Heels
- Oral Herpes (Cold Sores)
- Wounds & Cuts
- Toenail Fungus
- Plantar Warts
- Respiratory Conditions
- Sore Throats
Zam-Buk Active Ingredients
- Eucalyptus Oil (5.03 g)
- Thyme Oil (0.50 g)
- Sassafras Oil (0.62 g)
- Camphor (1.66 g)
1. Eucalyptus Oil
Eucalyptus Oil is traditionally used to treat insect bites, burns and cuts. It is often used topically as an antiseptic to reduce the risk of infection and to stimulate healing. Additionally, eucalyptus is commonly used to relieve pain when it is rubbed into sore muscles.
2. Thyme Oil
Oil made from Thyme has been used for thousands of years in Mediterranean countries for a wide range of conditions, including scars and skin marks, acne, coughs, and yeast infections. Thyme oil also has potent antispasmodic, antibacterial and antiseptic properties.
3. Sassafras Oil
Sassafras has a very long history of herbal use. It was widely utilized by Native American tribes who used it to treat a wide range of ailments including gastrointestinal ailments, colds, kidney ailments, rheumatism, and skin eruptions. Also, the oil of sassafras was commonly used as a painkiller and an antiseptic in dentistry.²
See side effects of Sassafras Oil noted below.
Camphor is a terpene (an organic compound) that is frequently used in vapor rubs and herbal salves to relieve pain and reduce itching. Camphor seems to increase blood flow to the area and stimulates nerve ending when applied topically. It also treats toenail fungus, warts, cold sores, hemorrhoids, first degree burns, and osteoarthritis.
Camphor is made either by extracting and steam distillation of the bark of camphor trees, or (more common) chemically manufactured from Turpentine.³
Zam-Buk Ointment Side-Effects
Below are possible side effects that can occur from topical application of Zam-Buk. These side effects are rare, but can occur. Consult a physician if you observe any of the following:
- Allergic Reaction
- Increase in Heart Rate
- Slowed Breathing
- Reduced Appetite
- Increased Perspiration
- Increased Urination
Potential Sassafras Toxicity
While Sassafras has been used for hundreds of years in folk medicine, it has some potential side effects which should be noted even though the amount of Sassafras oil added to each Zam-Buk tin is very small; each 100 grams of Zam-Buk contains 0.62 grams (0.021 oz) of Sassafras Oil. Side effect symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, hallucinations, low blood pressure, and shallow or rapid breathing.
Use of sassafras oil is also associated with liver damage. Finally, there’s concern that consumption of sassafras during pregnancy can result in miscarriage.
Read what Dr. Weil has to say about Sassafras toxicity.
Zam-Buk may interact with the following medications and OTC products. Consult with your physician to find out if Zam-Buk is safe to use with your medications.
- Diabetes Medication
- Omeprazole (proton-pump inhibitor)
- Amitriptyline (nerve pain medication and antidepressant)
- Diclofenac (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug)
- Lovastatin (statin)
- Fresh Hawthorn Berries (Crataegus)
Where to Buy Zam-Buk
Be aware that 3 types of Zam-Buk are currently being sold on the internet; the authentic Zam-Buk “The Real Makoya” manufactured in South Africa, a Thai version, and a version from the UK. Each formula is different (even the green color) so be careful with what you purchase. Someone from South Africa should be able to tell you if it’s genuine Zam-Buk as the smell and color of authentic Zam-Buk is very distinct.
We purchased all three variations and discovered the Thai version is a darker green and smells mostly of eucalyptus oil. The UK Zam-Buk version comes close but does not smell the same as the South African manufactured version.