Pictured: Achy Cocoa Menthol Muscle Rub – Thank you to Mountain Rose Herbs for providing the ingredients to make this recipe!
By: Kathy Sadowski, MS in Aromatherapy, LMT, RA (registered aromatherapist)
In my massage therapy practice, I have found that applying muscle rubs containing menthol onto target areas has helped in reducing inflammation and pain for my clients. Multiple human studies have backed up the topical anti-inflammatory and analgesic activities of diluted menthol. This article will describe the benefits of menthol for aching muscles and includes one of my favorite easy to make muscle rub recipes.
What is menthol?
Menthol is the key constituent found in cornmint (Mentha arvensis) and peppermint (Mentha piperita) essential oil, offering a refreshing minty aroma. While menthol is available in both natural and synthetic forms, the natural source is preferred.
Applied to the skin, menthol can have an instant cooling effect. To use topically, it should be diluted heavily, to no more than a 5% strength. This equals 1 ounce of menthol per 20 ounces of carrier oil(s). At low concentrations, menthol can have an analgesic effect, but at high concentrations, it can be an irritant (1).
How can menthol help reduce pain and inflammation?
In a recent review of scientific research, it was shown that menthol creates a topical cooling action that desensitizes local nociceptors to offer an analgesic effect (1). Topical applications have also shown to reduce blood flow, which can help lesson the inflammatory response (2).
Multiple human studies have demonstrated the analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities of menthol. Most of these studies are small, and studies with more people across a variety of population demographics are needed to further determine the ideal dilution rate, duration of use, and possible contraindications. Here are a few studies to consider.
In 19 healthy participants, ice and menthol reduced local artery blood flow. The combination of using both ice and menthol seemed to further reduce blood flow (2).
In 16 subjects, a 3.5% topical menthol was more effective than ice in reducing exercise related muscle soreness and muscle weakness (3).
In 16 subjects, the topical application of a 3.5% or 10% menthol to the thigh rapidly reduced blood flow (4).
In 17 healthy adults, a 3.5% menthol applied topically was more effective than ice in rapidly reducing blood flow. It also resulted in better lower arm muscle strength (5).
In 22 patients who had chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy, the topical application of 1% menthol twice daily for 6 weeks reduced pain, improved function, and had minimal side effects (6).
The topical application of peppermint essential oil reduced neuralgic pain in a 76-year old woman (7).
Formulating a Recipe
In formulating a menthol infused recipe to massage onto my clients’ sore muscles, I wanted a subtle cooling effect without an overpowering menthol aroma. The recipe below is roughly a 1% dilution of menthol, offering a slight but significant cooling of the local tissue. Combining cocoa butter wafers blends a chocolate note to the minty menthol in a pleasing way and is soothing for the skin. Arnica infused oil is also added to further aid in muscle comfort (8). Rosemary antioxidant lengthens the shelf life of the recipe, but I also like the way it offers a slight herby note to the scent of the lotion.
Achy Cocoa Menthol Muscle Rub Recipe
Pictured: Menthol crystals, beeswax, cocoa butter wafers, raw coconut oil, and sunflower oil melting together in a double boiler.
Thank you to Mountain Rose Herbs for providing the ingredients to make this recipe!
First, heat the following on low in a double boiler: sunflower oil, menthol crystals, raw coconut oil, cocoa butter wafers, and beeswax. Heat until completely melted.
Pour the melted ingredients into a glass mixing bowl. Be careful not to get any water from the bottom of the double boiler pot into the recipe.
Allow to cool completely, at least 6 hours. Don’t rush it.
In a bowl mixer, begin mixing on low and slowly bring to high over the next minute. Once the ingredients are mixing on high, slowly add in the next batch of ingredients.
To add the rest of the ingredients, first combine the jojoba oil, aloe vera gel, rosemary antioxidant, and arnica infused oil. Then pour these ingredients in with the rest of the ingredients as they are mixing.
Continue to mix on high for 10 minutes.
Scoop the recipe into glass jars with sealing lids. Label the jars with contents and date.
Hint: With this recipe, it is best to measure by weight using a small kitchen scale (as opposed to using typical measuring cups). Especially with the beeswax, the amount of space that the beeswax pastilles occupy when they fill up a four-ounce measuring cup only actually ends up weighing about 2 ounces! That is because measuring cups are based off the weight of water. Not adding enough beeswax will result in a runny lotion. Further, it is important to measure potent ingredients like the menthol crystals and the rosemary antioxidant by weight to get the most accurate measurement!
To use: adults can rub about ½ Tbsp to a local area. Avoid with young children and those with certain medical conditions. Avoid getting into the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and other orifices.
Skin patch test a small area before using if you have sensitive skin. Discontinue use if any irritation occurs. Properly stored, this recipe should last at least a year.
PS – this recipe works great on aching feet!
Pergolizzi Jr, J. V., Taylor Jr, R., LeQuang, J. A., Raffa, R. B., & NEMA Research Group. (2018). The role and mechanism of action of menthol in topical analgesic products. Journal of clinical pharmacy and therapeutics, 43(3), 313-319.
Topp, R., Ledford, E. R., & Jacks, D. E. (2013). Topical menthol, ice, peripheral blood flow, and perceived discomfort. Journal of athletic training, 48(2), 220-225.
Johar, P., Grover, V., Topp, R., & Behm, D. G. (2012). A comparison of topical menthol to ice on pain, evoked tetanic and voluntary force during delayed onset muscle soreness. International journal of sports physical therapy, 7(3), 314.
Topp, R., Winchester, L. J., Schilero, J., & Jacks, D. (2011). Effect of topical menthol on ipsilateral and contralateral superficial blood flow following a bout of maximum voluntary muscle contraction. International journal of sports physical therapy, 6(2), 83.
Topp, R., Winchester, L., Mink, A. M., Kaufman, J. S., & Jacks, D. E. (2011). Comparison of the effects of ice and 3.5% menthol gel on blood flow and muscle strength of the lower arm. Journal of sport rehabilitation, 20(3), 355-366.
Storey, D. J., Colvin, L. A., Scott, A. C., Boyle, D., Green, L., Jones, A. P., & Fallon, M. T. (2010). Treatment of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) with topical menthol: A phase I study. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 28(15_suppl), 9129-9129.
Davies, S. J., Harding, L. M., & Baranowski, A. P. (2002). A novel treatment of postherpetic neuralgia using peppermint oil. The Clinical journal of pain, 18(3), 200-202.
Iannitti, T., Morales-Medina, J. C., Bellavite, P., Rottigni, V., & Palmieri, B. (2016). Effectiveness and safety of Arnica montana in post-surgical setting, pain and inflammation. American journal of therapeutics, 23(1), e184-e197.