What is Creosote?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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Creosote is a wood preservative made by distilling wood or coal tar at very high temperatures. It is commonly used to protect telephone poles, fence posts, and other wood that is exposed to the elements. Historically, it's also been used in tinctures and home remedies for different ailments, although the usage is largely discouraged today. There are a few long-term health applications associated with creosote as well.

Wood creosote is a greasy liquid that has a clear to yellow tint. It usually has a burned taste and flavor that is not considered to be appealing, but it was used for a number of years as an effective laxative, as well as treatment for coughs associated with a cold. This type has also been used as a disinfecting agent. It may also be found in liquid smoke meat flavoring.

Coal tar creosote tends to have different properties. It's amber to black in hue and is quite thick. This form was sometimes used in the treatment of psoriasis. More commonly, it has been used in animal dips, various types of insecticides, and repellants for animals and birds around camp sites. It is most often used as a wood preservative, however.


Contact with creosote can cause a wide range of health issues. When exposed to low levels for an extended period of time, people can develop a skin rash that may in time become skin cancer. Chimney sweeps were particularly subject to such problems as cancer of the scrotum, owning to the frequent exposure to the residue that was found in soot and the coal tar creosote that was used to line many chimneys.

Direct contact with larger amounts of creosote can result in burns and rashes to the skin, as well as cause problems with the eyes. Continued exposure to high levels can also lead to liver and kidney issues. Mental confusion and convulsions are signs of overexposure, and iIf the individual is not treated promptly, bouts of unconsciousness and even death can result.


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