Do you have childhood memories of Mom smearing a thick coat of a vapor rub on your throat and chest to ease a cough or cold? For generations moms relied on this remedy to clear stuffy noses so we could breathe better, and to break up chest congestion. She may have even applied a little of the ointment to the soles of our feet to stifle a cough.
The Story Behind Vapor Rub
Before the advent of medicated rubs and ointments in the late 1800's and early 1900's, people relied on mint or mustard poultices and plasters to treat chest and head colds. While these early remedies were effective in producing a warm, tingling sensation when applied to the chest, blisters or rashes often resulted in the process.
After poultices, the next popular home remedy for croup and colds consisted of inhaling hot herbal, steaming vapors from a pot of boiling water. While this method did bring temporary relief, the required pot of water was heated over a difficult to stabilize coal or wood fire. The fluctuating intensity of heat sometimes resulted in scalding and facial burns.
Taking the effective results of poultices, plasters and steaming vapors, pharmacists sought to combine the benefits of these early cold and croup treatments into a safe and easy to apply ointment.
Menthol was first used in drug-store products for its heat-producing effects. Menthol is a waxy, crystalline alcohol extracted from oil of peppermint, which releases a pungent vapor. French pharmacist, Jules Bengué is credited with combining menthol with an analgesic pain reliever in a lanolin base in the late 1890s. His product, Ben-Gay was widely used in Europe and America as a remedy for neuralgia, rheumatoid arthritis and gout. This balm was also reported by users to open congested sinus passages.
If you compare the contents of a jar of vapor rub to a tube of sore-muscle ointment, you’ll notice they contain some of the same ingredients. This similarity can be traced back to the early 1900s. Case in point, Vick’s VapoRub was invented in the US after a North Carolina druggist Lunsford Richardson listened to customers report the healing virtues of Ben-Gay. In his brother-in-law’s drugstore laboratory, Richardson concocted the first popular vapor rub product using petroleum as the base. He named it after his brother-in-law, physician Joshua Vick, owner of Vick’s drugstore, where Richardson’s pharmacology career began and quickly grew into a huge success.
Commercially prepared vapor rubs typically contain unhealthy by products of the oil industry: petroleum and spirits of Turpentine. Today, with access to a wide variety of highly effective essential oils and other natural plant products, we are able to make our own high quality, healing salves at home.
Medicated Vapor Rub and Sore Muscle Salve
Camphor is an aromatic, versatile oil used in cold and flu remedies for its decongestant and expectorant properties. It also is useful in relieving sore muscles, back aches and painful arthritis. Wintergreen has been used vastly to relieve joint pain and stiffness, but also has useful antihistamine properties. Fir Needle clears the lungs, sinuses and nasal passages. The powerful aromatic oils in this blend work to clear breathing passages and soothe aching muscles.
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/8 cup beeswax
1/4 cup almond oil
15 drops camphor essential oil
15 drops wintergreen essential oil
15 drops eucalyptus essential oil
5 drops fir needle essential oil
Melt coconut oil and beeswax over very low heat or in a double boiler. Remove from heat and stir in almond oil and essential oils. Pour into a glass jar or desired container. Lay cap over the jar to stop the oils from escaping. Allow to cool at room temperature before tightening the lid.
Menthol crystals will increase the aromatic vapors and further enhance the heating and cooling sensations. Use to ease cold symptoms and to relieve sore or achy muscles and joints.
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/8 cup beeswax
1/4 cup almond oil
¼ to ½ teaspoon menthol crystals
15 drops camphor or eucalyptus essential oil
Melting coconut oil and beeswax together over very low heat or in a double boiler. Remove from heat and stir in menthol crystals, almond oil, and eucalyptus or camphor essential oil. Pour into a glass jar. Lay cap over the jar to stop the oils from escaping. Allow to cool at room temperature before tightening the lid.
Other essential oil combinations to try in a vapor rub:
Muscle Relief – clove, helichrysum, peppermint, and wintergreen
Arthritis or stiff joints – wintergreen, cypress and lemongrass
Breathe Easier – eucalyptus, lemon, peppermint and rosemary or tea tree
Need a source for menthol crystals and essential oils? Mountain Rose Herbs.
About the Author:
Deborah Tukua is the editor of Journey to Natural Living and the author of the healthy, fresh from the blender recipe book, Naturally Sweet Blender Treats. Check out Lowell and Deborah's super sturdy and handsome DIY Gardening Potting Bench Plans. Deborah is a freelance writer for the Farmers' Almanac and Chiropractic Economics magazine and author of the book, Marketing Strategies for Chiropractic Success.
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