About Tiger Balm Topical Ointment

massage leg
One of the ingredients in Tiger Balm is menthol, which comes from the essential oil of mint. (Image: yunava1/iStock/Getty Images)

Tiger Balm is a staple in locker rooms, sports schools, and home medicine chests around the world. Originally designed as a topical analgesic for muscles and joints, it has found other uses as well. Today, it is used as a remedy for itching, sprains, congestion from allergies, and headaches. It's even found uses as a mosquito repellent and a chest rub for colds.

Tiger Balm is "strong" both in the sense that it has definite helpful effects and in the sense that it can harm you if you misuse it.

Ancient Chinese History

According to the Tiger Balm Web site, the original formula was introduced to the world by Aw Chu Kin, who was a Chinese imperial court herbalist. He took a topical formula for body aches with him to Burma (now called Myanmar) where he set up a medicine shop. His sons named the formula "Tiger Balm" after one of those sons, whose name meant "gentle tiger." This second generation took Tiger Balm to Singapore at the beginning of the 20th century. From there it has found its way around the world.

No Tigers in the Balm

Contrary to urban legend, Tiger Balm contains no tigers whatsoever. The mixture is fairly simple, straightforward enough that you could make it at home with ingredients readily available in vitamin and health stores.

The two main ingredients are camphor and menthol. Camphor is found in the essential oils of rosemary. Menthol comes from the essential oil of mint. Both are counter-irritants, meaning that they cause a minor irritation on the skin that increases circulation and makes the skin feel tingly, or perhaps hot or cool.

Other ingredients include Cajaput (Melaluca Lucadendron Tea Tree Oil), Cassia Oil, Clove Oil, Dementholized Mint Oil, and Paraffin Petrolatum. Tea tree oil, and clove oil are also counter-irritants.

Soothe Your Sores

The "wildcat" uses for Tiger Balm are quite varied, creative, and sometimes, in the case of internal uses, dangerous. The uses suggested by the company center around the basic use, as a topical analgesic for muscle and joint pain. Tiger Balm liniment can be used as a massage oil for delayed onset muscle soreness from exercise. The company also suggests that Tiger Balm may help headaches, stuffy nose, insect bites and itchiness as well.

In general, use Tiger Balm Red for stronger pain and tougher parts of the body. Use the "white" strength when you want something more gentle.

The Science Behind Tiger Balm

A few of these uses have been backed by scientific studies. For example, Tiger Balm is an effective massage oil for stimulating blood flow. In the 2007 issue of the "Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports," researchers reported that massaging Tiger Balm into the calf of the leg "resulted in an increase in both skin and calf blood flow."

Another study in the 1996 "Australian Family Physician" found that using Tiger Balm topically for tension headaches reduced the severity of the headache significantly when compared with a placebo.

Tiger Balm Dangers

Tiger Balm is, however, strong enough to warrant some caution. It can be irritating to the skin. A 2006 study reported in the journal "Contact Dermatitis" patch tested twenty people with Tiger Balm. Of the group, between one and three people had a mild reaction in the form of superficial skin irritation. The rest tolerated the balm well.

Most importantly, Tiger Balm should never be used internally. Tiger Balm contains menthol and camphor, both of which are toxic. According to the MedLine Plus Medical Encyclopedia, when taken internally, camphor can result in pain, irritation, rapid pulse, slowed breathing, even unconsciousness. These symptoms are even more pronounced in children, so Tiger Balm should never be used around the nose or mouth of a child. It should also be kept well away from children who too young to abide by safety precautions.

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