Wintergreen Essential Oil: Healing Elixir or Potential Hazard?

Wintergreen essential oil has long been prized in alternative medicine for its scent and potential medicinal properties. Used frequently in aromatherapy for its unique minty fragrance, this oil is becoming somewhat of a winter trend due to the potential analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties it may possess. But, is it safe to use? In this article, we will weigh up the benefits and risks of this complex essential oil.

Key takeaways:

What is wintergreen oil?

Wintergreen oil is an essential oil extracted from the leaves of a tiny evergreen shrub that is native to North America named Gaultheria procumbens. It has a peppermint-like aroma that makes it a popular oil for use in aromatherapy and personal care products like toothpaste and deodorants. Wintergreen contains an active ingredient called methyl salicylate, a naturally occurring analgesic which is reported to have similar qualities to aspirin, although much more research is needed to establish its effects.

Wintergreen oil uses

Wintergreen oil is used in many ways, including:

  • Aromatherapy. The fresh, minty scent of wintergreen is thought to support mental clarity and alertness, which makes it a popular choice for aromatherapy, both in massage and for diffusion.
  • Pain relief. The active ingredient in wintergreen, methyl salicylate, is thought to produce analgesic effects that may help alleviate sore muscles and stiff joints. However, more research is needed to establish a firm link.
  • Skincare. Wintergreen has astringent qualities and might help balance oily skin, create a smoother complexion, and improve overall skin health.

Benefits of wintergreen

While there are many anecdotal accounts of the benefits of wintergreen oil, it’s important to clarify that there is limited scientific research into its effects, some of which are contradictory. Make sure you are familiar with the correct dilutions and usage instructions before using wintergreen oil on your skin.

  • Anti-inflammatory. Wintergreen is regarded for its potential to lessen inflammation, which may provide relief for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. However, correct dilution is essential, and wintergreen oil should never replace medications recommended by healthcare professionals.
  • Muscle and joint pain relief. The methyl salicylate content of wintergreen may act as a natural painkiller, which may help to relieve sore, aching muscles when applied topically. Again, more research is needed to establish the safety of using wintergreen in this way, so caution is advised.
  • Respiratory aid. Similar to peppermint, inhaling the vapors of wintergreen may help ease congested airways, loosen mucus, and enable easier breathing during recovery from colds and flu.

Risks of wintergreen oil

Many essential oils carry risks as well as potential benefits, and wintergreen is no exception. Preparing ourselves and gathering knowledge about this essential oil can help prevent injuries and accidents from misuse.

  • Skin sensitivity. Essential oils are highly concentrated, and wintergreen oil might irritate the skin if it comes into direct contact with it. Adverse reactions can be mitigated by diluting it with a carrier oil such as almond or grapeseed oil before topical application.
  • Interactions with medications. Those who are taking certain prescription medications, such as blood thinners, should be extremely careful when using wintergreen oil as it could be contraindicated and may potentially make health problems worse. If you are concerned about any possible drug interactions, make sure to consult with a healthcare professional.
  • Toxicity concerns. Wintergreen oil should never be ingested, as the high concentration of methyl salicylate found in the oil can be harmful in tiny amounts and can contribute to salicylate poisoning. The symptoms of salicylate poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and even organ failure. If you notice any of these symptoms after wintergreen oil use, contact a medical professional immediately.

What does science say?

One study published in the Journal of Clinical Therapeutic found that the topical use of a wintergreen oil patched decreased pain levels in those with light muscle strain. However, as with many essential oils, more research is needed to establish firm conclusions about their safety and risks.

The anti-inflammatory effects have been reported in studies in the journal Plants, which may indicate its potential use as a natural anti-inflammatory. However, wintergreen oil should not be considered as a replacement for effective and well-researched anti-inflammatory medications.

Despite some promising studies, it’s important to note one particularly sober outcome of the use of wintergreen oil. According to a review published in the International Journal of Risk and Safety in Medicine, an 80 year old patient who consumed wintergreen oil actually died from salicylate poisoning.

Pros and cons of wintergreen oil

Because of its high methyl salicylate content, it’s crucial to follow the correct dosage guidelines. The risk of wintergreen oil poisoning poses a very real problem. Symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • In extreme situations, organ failure

If you use wintergreen oil topically or accidentally ingest it and notice any of these symptoms, you must seek advice from a medical professional.

The importance of responsible use

Even though there are many reported benefits of wintergreen oil, it’s advised to use it sparingly, exercise caution, and always adhere to the dosage instructions. Before using it topically, make sure it is adequately diluted with a carrier oil and do a patch test on your skin before massaging it into any larger areas.

Education and responsible use need to be exercised when adding wintergreen oil to any personal care or wellness regimen. Essential oils can be incredibly potent and shouldn’t be ingested or used directly on the skin without dilution. They aren’t regulated by the FDA and haven’t been through the same rigorous testing that medications have to go through to make sure they are safe to use. If you have any doubts or aren’t sure about using wintergreen essential oil, it’s best to speak to a healthcare specialist who can advise you.

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