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Tiger Balm is an over-the-counter product that claims to temporarily relieve minor muscle aches, pains, and strains. It does so by numbing the skin, as an analgesic.
Tiger Balm comes in different forms, including:
- adhesive skin patches
Regular- and extra-strength preparations of Tiger Balm are available. The formulations, scents, and packaging may differ, depending on the region where a person buys it.
In this article, learn about the uses of Tiger Balm, the active ingredients, and the possible side effects.
Tiger Balm contains several active and inactive ingredients.
The active ingredients in one formulation of regular-strength Tiger Balm include:
- 15 percent methyl salicylate, which may act as an analgesic, numbing the skin.
- 5 percent menthol, which may help restrict blood vessels, reducing inflammation and causing a therapeutic cooling sensation.
- 3 percent camphor, which may improve circulation and cool or warm the skin.
Some types of Tiger Balm contain other active ingredients or essential oils, such as:
- mint oil
- cassia oil
- clove oil
- cajuput oil
- wintergreen oil
- eucalyptus oil
Most evidence for the benefits of Tiger Balm is based on what researchers know about its active ingredients.
Tiger Balm may relieve:
1. Aches and strains
Ingredients in the balm, such as camphor, increase blood flow to the surface of the skin, creating a warming sensation that can distract from pain and stiffness.
Camphor and menthol may also improve blood circulation to the muscles, potentially speeding up healing time and reducing inflammation.
In a small 2014 study, nine adults who applied petroleum jelly that contained 5, 10, or 20 percent camphor to their forearms experienced increased blood flow to their skin and muscles.
Other ingredients in Tiger Balm, such methyl salicylate, act as analgesics and numb the skin, which may reduce stiffness and aches.
Tiger Balm adhesive patches may be the most useful for muscle pains and strains, as a patch steadily releases the active ingredients over a prolonged period.
Some versions of Tiger Balm contain capsicum, the active ingredient in chili peppers. Capsicum blocks nerve receptors that transmit pain impulses, creating a warm sensation that can lessen the intensity of muscle aches and strains.
2. Tension headaches
Authors of a study from 1996 found that applying Tiger Balm to the forehead was more effective at relieving tension headaches than a placebo. It was almost as effective as taking acetaminophen (Tylenol).
While current medical reviews of alternative headache remedies continue to cite this study, more up-to-date research is necessary.
3. Colds and congestion
Tiger Balm contains ingredients that may help relieve sinus and chest congestion. Some have been used for centuries in oils, ointments, and inhalant form to ease congestion from colds and allergies.
Camphor acts as a mild expectorant, nasal decongestant, and cough suppressant. Menthol may help soothe irritated nasal passageways, helping to relieve stuffy noses.
In a 2013 study, 14 people who inhaled a 1 percent menthol solution before being exposed to capsicum, a cough-inducer, took longer to cough than those who did not use the menthol solution.
People looking to use Tiger Balm for congestion or other cold symptoms should purchase formulas that do not contain cough-inducers, such as capsicum and clove oil.
4. Back pain
People frequently use Tiger Balm to relieve back pain, especially pain in the lower back.
Some use certain ingredients in Tiger Balm before or after receiving alternative treatments for back pain, including Gua Sha therapy.
In a 2012 study, 18 people who had experienced nonspecific back pain for more than 5 consecutive days had a cream applied to the area before receiving one Gua Sha treatment. The cream contained camphor and menthol.
The participants reported reduced pain and improved health, but determining whether the active ingredients increased the effectiveness of the therapy will require further research.
5. Neck and shoulder tension
Tiger Balm may help reduce neck and shoulder pain.
In an older study, 105 men and women with mild to moderate muscle strain used patches containing a 10 percent methyl salicylate and 3 percent menthol formulation. The participants used the patches on multiple regions, including the upper shoulder and neck.
Twelve hours after applying their patches, the participants experienced, on average, a 40 percent reduction in pain, compared to the 103 control subjects who used placebo patches.
In a 2017 study, 29 people with neck pain applied a topical menthol gel to the area before receiving cervical chiropractic manipulation. Those who used the gel reported significantly more pain reduction after treatment than those who did not.
6. Joint pain
Little specific evidence supports the use of Tiger Balm to relieve joint pain. However, many people use the balm to ease aches and pain related to osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis causes bones to lose density and become brittle over time, leading to joint pain.
A 2012 study that included 2,679 people with osteoarthritic knee joint pain found that 352 of the participants used rubs, such as Tiger Balm, to reduce the pain.
Researchers are unsure why Tiger Balm seems to help relieve joint pain, but the active ingredients may numb the area and reduce swelling.
Some people use Tiger Balm as an:
- insect repellant and termite controller
- paint, adhesive, or wax remover
- antiseptic for wounds
- wart remover
- fungus remover
- bath oil
- massage oil
- furniture or machinery lubricant
No research supports many of these uses, but there may be anecdotal evidence.
Do not apply Tiger Balm in the following circumstances:
- 1 hour before or 30 minutes after exposing the skin to hot, humid conditions, including a hot shower, a sauna, or a hot tub
- on broken skin or open wounds
- on irritated, inflamed, reddened, chapped, or dry skin
- on mucous membranes, such as those in the mouth, nostrils, vagina, rectum, or penis
- to the inner ears
- to burned skin
- to skin already warmed by other products, such as heating pads
If a person has not used Tiger Balm before, it is best to test a small amount on the forearm. Wait a full day and check for reactions before applying the balm to a larger area.
Store Tiger Balm away from children and do not use it on those under 12 years old unless a doctor recommends it.
There is little research on the safety of using Tiger Balm during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Speak with a doctor before using it at these times.
It is best to consult a doctor about aches, pains, or health concerns that last for more than a few days, get worse, or return.
Tiger Balm is not intended to treat underlying medical conditions, nor is it meant for long-term use.
The active ingredients can be dangerous if a person ingests them, even in small doses.
Camphor, for example, is toxic to humans. Signs of camphor toxicity include:
- severe nausea and vomiting
- slurred speech, stumbling, and lack of coordination (ataxia)
Camphor and other toxic substances in the balm may enter the bloodstream through the skin. A small Cambodian study found that that camphor does not enter the bloodstream, but more research is needed to confirm this. Menthol may also be toxic to humans.
If a person swallows or ingests Tiger Balm, they should call their local poison control helpline immediately. The phone number in the United States is 1-800-222-1222. People in the U.S. can also text 797979.
Tiger Balm is available in many stores and online.