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Sassafras

Medically reviewed on June 7, 2018

What is Sassafras?

Sassafras is the name applied to 3 species of trees, 2 native to eastern Asia and 1 native to eastern North America. Fossils show that sassafras once was widespread in Europe, North America, and Greenland. All parts of the tree are strongly aromatic. The drug is from the peeled root of the plant (root bark). Synonyms are S. officinale and S. variifolium.

Scientific Name(s)

Sassafras albidum

Common Name(s)

Sassafras also is known as saxifras, ague tree, cinnamon wood, and saloop.

What is it used for?

Traditional/Ethnobotanical uses

Native Americans have used sassafras for centuries and told early settlers that it would cure a variety of illnesses. The settlers then exported it to Europe, where it was found ineffective. A report on experiences of explorers and doctors finding, identifying, and describing sassafras bark and other drugs during the late 16th century is available.

Over the years, the oil obtained from the roots and wood has been used as a scent in perfumes and soaps. Medicinally, sassafras has been applied to insect bites and stings to relieve symptoms. The leaves and pith, when dried and powdered, have been used as a thickener in soups. The roots often are dried and steeped for tea, and sassafras formerly was used as a flavoring in root beer. The pleasant-tasting oil of sassafras comes from the roots and the root bark. The main constituent of the oil is safrole. Sassafras oil and safrole have been banned for use as a drug and as flavors and food additives by the FDA because of their carcinogenic potential. However, their use and sale persist throughout the US.

What is the recommended dosage?

Sassafras root bark has been used as an aromatic and carminative at doses of 10 g; however, the carcinogenicity of its constituent safrole has limited its use.

Contraindications

No longer considered safe.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Documented emmenagogue, abortifacient effects. Avoid use.

Interactions

None well documented.

Side Effects

Besides being a cancer-causing agent, sassafras can induce vomiting, stupor, and hallucinations. It also can cause abortion, diaphoresis, and dermatitis.

Toxicology

Sassafras oil and safrole have been banned for use as flavors and food additives by the FDA because of their carcinogenic potential.

References

1. Sassafras. Review of Natural Products. factsandcomparisons4.0 [online]. 2005. Available from Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. Accessed April 23, 2007.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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