Menthol is an organic compound with a characteristic minty smell. It can be derived from natural sources, such as peppermint and eucalyptus plants, or produced synthetically. Menthol has a range of invigorating and soothing properties that make it a versatile ingredient in health and beauty products.
When applied topically to the skin, ingested, or inhaled, menthol produces a cooling sensation. Menthol does not, in fact, lower the temperature of the body or skin. Instead, it produces this cooling effect by blocking the calcium current along the nerves responsible for detecting temperature. The message that the individual receives via the nerve endings is that the skin or body is cooling.
Menthol's ability to produce a cooling sensation on the skin makes it an extremely useful ingredient in aftersun creams and lotions, which are designed to be applied to the skin after exposure to the sun. Menthol alleviates the hot, painful sensation that overexposure to the sun can trigger. Menthol is also found in products that can be applied topically to the forehead to ease the pain associated with headaches, such as cooling patches. Many people find menthol's cooling sensation to be uplifting and invigorating. As a result, menthol is used as an ingredient in toiletries and skin care products that are designed to refresh, revitalize, and enliven the skin.
Menthol also has pain relieving properties when applied topically. It is particularly beneficial in alleviating the pain associated with minor musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis, sprains, or muscle cramps. Menthol can be combined with ibuprofen in pain relieving gels and creams that are designed to be applied topically. Menthol increases the effectiveness of the ibuprofen by enlarging the blood vessels (a process known as vasodilation). This allows the ibuprofen to penetrate deep in to the affected area.
When applied to the thin skin on the lips, menthol improves the flow of blood to the area, causing a temporary plumping effect. As a result, menthol is often included as an ingredient in lip products that aim to produce fuller lips without surgical intervention. These include balms and lip glosses that color the lips while producing a well-defined pout.
When taken orally, menthol can improve digestion, leading to the prevention or treatment of intestinal gas and bloating. Menthol helps to relax the muscles in the intestine, preventing spasms and lessening the likelihood of cramping. As a result, menthol can be useful for individuals experiencing irritable bowel syndrome.
Manufacturers of cough drops, cough syrup, and throat sprays include menthol in their products because it has anesthetic and cough suppressant qualities. Menthol soothes the throat irritation that can lead to persistent, painful coughing. Typically, cough drops containing menthol contain around 2 to 4 milligrams of menthol per piece.
Menthol has an expectorant action, which enables it to thin and loosen the mucus that builds up in the respiratory tract. Accordingly, inhalations of menthol can improve congestion in the nose and throat linked to colds and influenza. Menthol dilates the bronchioles, the passageways that transport air from the nose and mouth to the lungs. This property makes it ideal for alleviating respiratory conditions such as bronchitis. Steam inhalations of menthol can be produced by placing hot water in a bowl or bath and adding a few drops of menthol oil. Alternatively, menthol rubs can be applied to the chest and back.
The refreshing, minty sensation of menthol makes it a popular ingredient in oral hygiene products, such as toothpaste, mouthwash, and sprays that freshen the breath. Candy that is designed to freshen the breath, such as chewing gum and breath fresheners, often contains menthol to give it a fresh, minty flavor.
Menthol is used by some cigarette manufacturers to produce menthol cigarettes. In contrast to regular cigarettes, menthol cigarettes suppress the desire to cough because menthol soothes the back of the throat. Individuals who smoke menthol cigarettes are exposed to the same high risk of developing lung cancer and heart disease as those who smoke regular cigarettes.
Products containing menthol should be used in accordance with the manufacturers' guidance. The low levels of menthol found in over-the-counter products are generally well tolerated by most people. However, some individuals may find that high concentrations of menthol irritate their skin when applied topically.