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Uplift your mood with wintergreen oil

Fact Checked

Wintergreen Oil

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research shows that wintergreen oil has pain-relieving properties due to its methyl salicylate content
  • Wintergreen oil must be diluted with a carrier oil because methyl salicylate is very toxic, even in very small amounts
  • Diluted wintergreen oil should only be used topically or through a vaporizer. Ingestion can lead to hospitalization

If you've ever used a pain-relieving ointment or rub with a mentholated aroma, you may already know what wintergreen oil smells like. The clean and minty scent of this herbal oil is associated with relieving pain and stimulating mental well-being. Discover more interesting facts about wintergreen oil in this article.

What is wintergreen oil?

Wintergreen oil is extracted from the Gaultheria procumbens, a shrubby evergreen plant from the Ericaceae plant family. The plant is native to Eastern North America, ranging from Newfoundland to Minnesota, Tennessee and Georgia and Alabama.1

The wintergreen is characterized by its erect stem and glossy leaves with an elliptic or oblong shape. It blooms white, bell-shaped flowers from June to July, which give way to red edible berries that can last through winter.2 The leaves are used to make wintergreen essential oil. Wintergreen oil has a sweet and fresh scent, similar to mint.3 The final product has a yellow or reddish color.4

Uses of wintergreen oil

Wintergreen's medicinal applications have been widely known for many centuries, particularly by the Native Americans, who used the leaves to help treat respiratory tract infections.5 They also chewed the leaves to increase endurance and respiratory capacity, helping them run long distances.6 During the American War of Independence, wintergreen leaves were used as a replacement for real tea leaves.7

Today, dilutions of wintergreen extract are notably added to food flavorings, cosmetic products and sports medicine.8 Wintergreen oil is still used medicinally today, but take note that it is not advisable to use the pure (concentrated) essential oil, as it can be very toxic. You should dilute a very small amount in a safe carrier oil such as coconut oil or olive oil. It should not be ingested because the effects can be disastrous.9

Diluted wintergreen oil can be applied topically10 or diffused via a vaporizer. This is a popular practice because of the oil's pain-relieving properties that can help with muscular or skeletal problems. In fact, the methyl salicylate is usually added to liniments and topical pain relievers.11

When used aromatherapeutically (diffused, vaporized or added to a steaming bowl of hot water), wintergreen oil may help relax and uplift your mood.12

Composition of wintergreen oil

Wintergreen oil is mostly composed of methyl salicylate (90 to 98 percent), which accounts for almost all the healing and health-promoting properties of this essential oil. Methyl salicylate is an ester commonly added in ointments to help with acute topical pain. Due to its minty aroma and flavor, it is used as a flavoring agent for chewing gums and other mints (in small concentrations only).13

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3 benefits of wintergreen oil

Wintergreen oil is said to have analgesic, anti-rheumatic, anti-arthritic, antispasmodic, antiseptic, aromatic and astringent properties. It also acts as a carminative, diuretic and emenagogue. Here are some potential health benefits associated wintergreen oil:

Pain relief — The methyl salicylate in wintergreen oil has been studied extensively. The general consensus is that it may be useful for helping relieve pain, hence its popularity in dermatological products.14 In one study, wintergreen oil (diluted with peppermint oil) helped patients affected with low back pain.15

Antioxidant boost — A 2014 study notes that Gaultheria procumbens L. leaves contain antioxidants, which have high anti-inflammatory potential.16

Gardening — Research indicates that wintergreen essential oil can help protect against pathogenic fungi that can affect plants.17

How to make wintergreen oil

Wintergreen oil is derived from the leaves of the plant. The leaves are macerated in warm water, encouraging the enzymes to produce methyl salicylate. Afterward, the leaves are distilled for four to six hours, resulting in 0.8 to 1 percent essential oil (kilogram of essential oil per kilogram of raw material).18

However, be warned that pure wintergreen oil (a highly concentrated form of methyl salicylate) is toxic even in small amounts, so it must be diluted with a carrier oil. You can create a small infusion using 1 to 4 drops of wintergreen oil per ounce of carrier oil. Remember that it should only be used topically, and is not to be ingested.19

How does wintergreen oil work?

Wintergreen oil is often described as having a minty flavor and aroma. In mint plants, menthol is the sensory molecule responsible for activating a transient receptor potential (TRP) in your body called TRPM8. This channel activates the cold response.

The methyl salicylate in wintergreen, however, activates TRPA1, which is responsible for the burning cold response. Furthermore, TRPV1 is activated as well, which is the same channel activated by capsaicin, the compound found in chili peppers responsible for their hot, spicy taste.20

Is wintergreen oil safe?

Despite its usefulness as a pain reliever, I advise you to be very careful when using wintergreen oil. Methyl salicylate is extremely toxic.21 Do not ingest it, even when diluted. Be sure to use wintergreen oil in moderation (whether it's topically applied or vaporized), and dilute it with a safe carrier oil.

If you have a child at home, it is very important that you keep wintergreen oil out of their reach. Toddlers often become tempted to ingest it because of its pleasant smell, which could be fatal.

Ingesting a single teaspoon of wintergreen oil is equivalent to taking almost 90 baby aspirins, and can lead to death.22 A medical report noted that a boy who swallowed just half an ounce of wintergreen oil experienced hyperventilation and dehydration, requiring immediate hospitalization to save his life.23

Side effects of wintergreen oil

The methyl salicylate in wintergreen oil may cause certain allergic reactions, such as hives, difficulty breathing and swelling of the face, tongue, lips or throat. It may also cause pain, severe burning and blistering of the skin.24 Do a skin patch test first if to check if you're sensitive to the methyl salicylate. In addition, consult with a doctor to rule out possible complications.