Menthol is a common ingredient found in many products, from mints to chewing gum, soaps and dental care products. It's also included in some nasal inhalers to deliver a refreshing and cold blast.
Naturally found in peppermint and spearmint, menthol gives these herbs their cooling effects. When you have an uplifting cup of peppermint tea or take a spearmint drop to soothe a sore throat, it is the menthol that gives you this boost. You’ve probably enjoyed its refreshing taste, but what is menthol exactly?
Sometimes also known as peppermint camphor, menthol is an organic component naturally found in peppermint, spearmint, and other types of mint. It is believed that mint plants make the compound in their leaves to discourage pests, insects, and predators, which are put off by the smell.
The menthol compound has the chemical formula C10H20O and can be extracted from mint plants by steam distillation or can be made in the lab relatively easily. When synthetically made, menthol looks like a white or colourless powder or crystal.
Whether naturally extracted or manufactured, menthol has a cooling effect when ingested, inhaled, or rubbed on the skin. However, it does not lower the temperature of the skin or your body. Instead, it interacts with your nerve sensors to produce the feeling of cold.
This feeling is known as a “psychophysical sensation” — a perception of coolness without the actual change in temperature. This cooling effect also acts as a mild anaesthetic.
Menthol offers several benefits, from helping to ease symptoms of medical conditions to promote general wellbeing. Menthol can relieve pain, particularly when applied topically to the skin or joints. This is because menthol binds to the kappa opioid receptors in the brain, the spinal cord, and the nervous system, reducing the sensation of pain.
Gels and creams containing menthol can be effective in relieving the pain associated with joint pain such as osteoarthritis. One study found that topical menthol significantly reduced knee pain and helped to increase the functioning of joints of people with osteoarthritis.
Furthermore, menthol can make other pain treatments more effective. Research has shown that menthol makes cetylated fatty acids better at treating osteoarthritis, reducing pain and making it easier for patients to move and exercise.
The pain-relieving benefits of menthol doesn't end there — studies have found that menthol is a powerful anti-inflammatory because it blocks the inflammatory hormone prostaglandin. Inflammation makes the joints and other parts of the body swell up, causing aches and pains. In reducing inflammation, menthol decreases the pain associated with some medical conditions, including osteoarthritis.
Along with reducing inflammation, the cooling effect of menthol can be beneficial in various ways. For example, it can increase endurance and boost performance in hot conditions. One study showed that menthol consumed internally allowed athletes to perform better.
This cooling effect is also why menthol can reduce the urge to cough. Menthol contributes to a feeling of increased openness in the nasal passages, helping to ease congestion.
On top of all these health benefits, menthol enlarges the skin's blood vessels, allowing for deeper penetration into the skin when using topical medication and skincare products. It also improves blood flow to the skin, giving a plumping effect, at least temporarily. Menthol is a popular ingredient in lip glosses and balms to make the lips appear plumper and fuller.
There are many ways that you can use menthol to manage pain and other symptoms, or simply feel healthier and more energised.
Some uses of menthol include the following:
- Menthol creams can relieve muscle aches, cramps, and irritation.
- It can be ingested or inhaled by athletes to increase endurance, improve their performance, or cool down, enabling them to keep training in the heat.
- Doctors may prescribe creams or gels containing menthol to help treat conditions like osteoarthritis.
- Doctors can also prescribe menthol creams to be used in conjunction with other topical creams so that these medications are more deeply absorbed into the skin.
- The cooling properties of menthol can be applied topically to relieve sunburn and refresh the skin.
- Menthol is used in cough drops to soothe a sore throat and reduce the urge to cough, thanks to its cooling effect and mild anaesthetic qualities.
- It is a common ingredient in oral hygiene products such as mouthwash, toothpaste, and dental floss to help cleanse and freshen the mouth as well as to deter bad breath.
Plus, ever wondered why some cigarettes contain menthol? That's because it numbs the throat and reduces smoke irritation, allowing smokers to consume more.
Menthol is often used in its solid form, such as in creams, gels, and cough drops. But it quickly turns to gas when a little heat is applied. It can be melted in warm water to produce a strong-smelling vapour that you can breathe in to enjoy its cooling and decongestant properties, clearing your airways and soothing a sore throat. The same effects can be achieved by using a nasal inhaler that contains menthol. This is also why some facial tissues now contain menthol.
Aside from its extensive use in health and wellness products, menthol is used as a pesticide. As a safe, natural ingredient, it can kill pests without harming other plants and animals.
Because of the inclusion of menthol in cigarettes, vaping products, and other harmful products, menthol has gained a bit of a negative reputation.
But, given all the benefits of menthol mentioned above and its use in medical products and treatments, can it really be bad for you?
The simple truth: Menthol is a natural compound with many health benefits. It is safe for the vast majority of people. Some have negative associations with menthol because of some of the products it is used in, but that's a pretty unfair judgement to make!
Of course, like any compound, there are exceptions to the rule. Some people are allergic to menthol and may cause skin irritation, rashes or, in rare cases, hives and/or swelling. Topical products should not be applied to the eyes, nose, or mouth, as they may cause irritation. Naturally, you should always follow any product's instructions for recommended use and dosage.
People with certain medical conditions, including gallstones, bile-duct obstruction, liver damage, and gallbladder inflammation may have complications from taking menthol internally. If you are suffering from a medical condition, it is a good idea to consult with your doctor before using any new product.
Menthol has a range of beneficial properties, including cooling effects, anti-inflammatory properties, and improving blood flow to the skin. These properties mean it can help to enhance sports performance, relieve cramps, soothe aches, and more. And as mentioned, it is completely safe to use for the vast majority of people with no side effects.
A convenient way to enjoy the many benefits of menthol is to inhale it through a FLYY Arctic Blast inhaler — so why not give it a try today?