Article Thumbnail

What’s in Vicks VapoRub, and How Does It Make Me Stop Coughing?

Turns out, it’s just a bunch of essential oils

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on, or near) themselves.

This edition: Vicks VapoRub, which is made from eight separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on their website.

The Ingredients

1) Camphor: The first of three active ingredients in Vicks VapoRub, camphor is typically derived from camphor trees — although it comes in synthetic variations, too — and has a menthol-like, nose-tingling fragrance. That piquant odor is the secret behind the effectiveness of Vicks VapoRub: It works by exuding various vapors that feel cooling to your nasal passages, as well as the area of your chest affected by your congestion, which tricks your brain into thinking your breathing has improved. In other words, Vicks VapoRub does virtually nothing to actually relieve congestion or a cough; your brain just thinks it does.

Like several other ingredients in Vicks VapoRub, camphor can be poisonous when ingested — even in small amounts — capable of causing seizures, coma and even death, so always use this medication as directed.

2) Eucalyptus Oil: The second active ingredient in Vicks VapoRub, eucalyptus oil works similar to how camphor does, secreting an invigorating scent that possesses some analgesic effects to help soothe your throat. Eucalyptus oil has also been associated with easing muscle tension linked to many common illnesses.

3) Menthol: Sourced primarily from peppermint, menthol, the third and final active ingredient in this product, has been proven to suppress cough reflex sensitivity, and it works, as you probably guessed, in the exact same way as the other active ingredients.

4) Cedarleaf Oil: The first of the inactive ingredients, cedarleaf oil is derived from all sorts of cedar trees and has a sweet, woody fragrance that could help balance out some of the more powerful odors associated with the above ingredients. It can, however, be poisonous if consumed, much like camphor. So no drinking or licking your Vicks VapoRub, please.

5) Nutmeg Oil: Another sweet-smelling compound, smelling nutmeg oil is believed to help soothe coughs. To that end, one study found that inhaling it decreased respiratory tract fluid in rabbits.

6) Petrolatum: More commonly known as petroleum jelly, petrolatum simply acts as a carrier ingredient for all of the oils in Vicks VapoRub.

7) Thymol: A derivative of the herb thyme, thymol is yet another essential oil that, when inhaled in small amounts, has been shown to reduce the urge to cough.

8) Turpentine Oil: Foraged primarily from pine trees, turpentine oil, once again, acts as yet another strong, odorous compound in Vicks VapoRub. And consuming it can, again, be lethal.

The Takeaway

Vicks VapoRub is basically a stew of essential oils injected into some jelly. It has some good uses, especially for minor coughs and colds. It also has some bad uses, like putting it on your genitals, an unfortunate trend that has left many people feeling like they have molten steel between their legs. 

All in all, if you have a cough, Vicks VapoRub is a smart initial option. But remember, never, ever eat it… or put it on your dick.