Menthol is an organic compound made synthetically or obtained from peppermint or other mint oils. It’s used in a large number of products and features certain therapeutic qualities. They can be stored for up to three years, provided they are not exposed to high levels of heat or humidity.
The compound was first isolated from peppermint oil in 1771 in the West, but it may have been in use in Japan for much longer. Most of menthol’s uses are related to its stimulation of the skin’s cold receptors. This property makes it produce a cooling effect when inhaled or applied to the skin. Similarly to the capsaicin chemical found in hot peppers, which stimulates heat receptors, menthol does not actually change the skin’s temperature, but merely produces the sensation of temperature change.
Menthol has antiseptic properties, which means it can be effective in killing germs and preventing infection. Because of this, it is often added to oral hygiene products, such as toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash. It can kill the germs that cause bad breath and leave the mouth with a cool feeling. Menthol can also be used to lessen the pain of a toothache.
Practitioners of homeopathic medicine believe that menthol can interfere with the effectiveness of these remedies, and some even go so far as to advise against the use of mint toothpaste. The idea may be rooted in the fact that African American smokers have both a higher incidence of cigarette-related cancers and a higher preference for menthol cigarettes than smokers of other backgrounds. There is no evidence these two statistics are causally related, however, and all types of cigarettes pose significant health risks.
Menthol’s cooling properties work to ease the pain of sunburn. It can also be used as a topical cream to reduce itching. Some shampoos, lotions and lip balms contain menthol. The chemical can be used to alleviate congestion in the nasal passages and in the chest. It thins the mucus and loosens it, making it easier for the body to expel it. Menthol is also effective at easing the pain of a sore throat. Cold relief products such as Vicks VapoRub, certain cough drops, and some types of facial tissue contain menthol.
Menthol has very low toxicity, although poisoning is possible if large quantities are consumed. Any ill effects from its use are extremely rare. Many people around the world enjoy its cooling sensation in gum, candy, lip gloss, and other products.