Scientific Name: Protium copal

Common Name: Copal, Pom

Parts Used: Tree Resin

Copal is from the Nahuatl language and the word is derived from “copalli,” which means incense; Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs. In Belize, copal is used as incense and can be found in most market places in the country; they are sold in one pound blocks of resin in its most natural form, with complimentary pieces of dried bark, leaves and drunken baymen, wrapped in leaf parcels. The Mayan and Mestizo population in Toledo, commonly burn pieces of copal on coals for spiritual cleansing. Copal has been used in ancient Maya and Aztec ceremony as a ritual offering to the Gods and so we can see that copal has a long history of use in Mesoamerica.

The secondary and less well-known use of copal is as medicine. I was already familiar with the concept of “evil eye” and “spiritual cleansing” from my own cultural background and so the use of copal for these purposes came as no surprise to me. However, whilst working as a Medical Doctor at the Santa Ana Clinic in Toledo, I stumbled across some other medicinal uses of copal: I found that it was not uncommon for a Mayan to seek medical attention at the clinic before going to see the bush doctor. Medical complaints included upper respiratory tract infections and also, skin conditions ranging from scabies, fungal mycoses, dermatitis and impetigo. Education on hygiene was usually the order of the day even although the great expectation was for a magical injection of steroid and penicillin. Sadly, I found that my Western Medicine knowledge was not appreciated and the next port of call was the bush doctor. The kekchi view of Western Medicine can be encapsulated in the words of a Mayan woman to me: “I come to you for fresh cold…but for real medicine I go to bush doctor.” She went on to explain that only a bush doctor could cure the serious illnesses such as snakebites, “dirty blood” and “fright.” There is a huge gulf between Western medicine and bush medicine in terms of the concepts of illness, so much so, that medical consultations can and usually are, unsatisfactory for both doctor and patient because there is no common ground for understanding. In some cases, patients would come full circle back to me after seeing the bush doctor and this was when I was able to catch glimpses of the bush medicine that was used. One of these snippets involved the use of copal resin on skin conditions like dermatitis and impetigo; intriguing because I actually saw good results. Indeed, it was these results which sparked off my interest in copal as a medicine. I found it amazing that copal was used in its raw, unrefined form and was used especially for skin infections (bark, leaves, dead flies and all!).

It was then that my husband (also a medical doctor) and I decided to experiment with the use of copal as a medicinal oil. We managed to refine and clean up the copal resin to make the oil we now coin “copal medicinal oil.” Further research from bush doctors in the Toledo area and medical plant literature confirms the use of copal for skin conditions. Furthermore, the resin has been used to plug tooth cavities, as an expectorant and in the treatment of muscular aches and pains.

Chemically, copal resin is made up of isomeric tertiary and secondary, cyclic terpene alcohols. These constituents are known to have antiseptic (both externally and internally) and anti-rheumatic properties.

The indications for Copal Medicinal Oil are labelled on the bottle as follows:

  • Rash/Itch/Xox (Kekchi word for Rash)
  • Burns/Scalds
  • Insect Bites
  • Skin Infections/Fungus
  • Muscle Rub/Arthritis

The indications are derived from feedback from people who have used the oil for those purposes and find it effective in the treatment of that particular condition. In a later article I would like to present some interesting case studies. With the advent of antibiotic over-use, mis-use, over-prescription and antibiotic resistance, I feel that there is a place for copal medicinal oil in the treatment of skin infections (bacterial and fungal) at an early stage.

In my personal observation, copal acts as an effective vulnerary ie. An agent that heals wounds and sores. Furthermore, copal has been described in herbals as “hot and dry in the third degree” which possibly explains why it is effective in arthritis and muscular aches often exacerbated by the cold weather.

Our research into the use of copal as an external medicinal agent is on-going. No side effects or allergic reactions have been reported. We would welcome your feedback.