One of the best ways to keep a festive atmosphere at home is by engaging all five senses. My family often sees and feels our seasonal decorations, hears music relevant to the nearest holiday, tastes ethnic foods based on cultural calendars, and smells the essential oils I diffuse throughout the year. One of the scents I use during the colder seasons is wintergreen.
The crisp, minty smell may remind you of gum or toothpaste, but those are only the most well-known applications of this versatile ingredient. Horticulturalists at the University of Purdue assign over two dozen names to the Gaultheria species, and its uses are multitalented. The actual plant is a small shoot standing under 6 inches tall with tough waxy leaves, pure white flowers, and bright red berries (which contrast nicely with the snow on the ground in the winter).
It takes one ton of leaves to produce a pound of extract through steam distillation, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, so it’s fortunate that a few drops go a long way. The oil’s power can be harnessed to benefit you and your family in so many ways.
Safety Precautions to Consider
Before you begin, there are some matters to keep in mind. The main constituent in this oil is methyl salicylate, which must be handled with extreme care and locked out of reach of children. The National Institutes of Health warns that less than a teaspoon can be lethal if ingested. Taking great care to read warning labels and instructions is imperative when using wintergreen extract or oil in your home. For topical use, the Food and Drug Administration advises consumers of products containing methyl salicylate to limit use to seven days, avoid broken skin, and keep bandages loose.
Be sure to follow safe guidelines for essential oil dilution when applying any essential oil topically.
How You Can Use This Oil at Home
A study on lower back pain treatments from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine suggests that using wintergreen oil in addition to peppermint oil offers more effective pain relief than either oil used on its own. Methyl salicylate is closely related to the compound found in aspirin, and when applied topically has shown to work as an effective painkiller. Many commercially available liniments and pain relief salves contain methyl salicylate for reducing pain, swelling, and numbing.
Historically, Native Americans use wintergreen for reducing fever, inflammation, and pain, as well as to improve respiratory capacity. Michigan’s Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Natural Resources Department reports that local Native American tribe elders recall five different types of tea made from the plant’s leaves and berries. Its tea has been said to potentially treat sore throats, cold symptoms, and aches. The crisp, minty aroma is thought to clear the mind and help sharpen focus. Personally, that’s how I most often use the oil—in a diffuser for focus while I work.
Beyond DIY muscle rubs, I’ve seen friends use the remarkable ingredient in shampoos, lotions, and conditioners.
Get Your Kids Involved
Have a fun with this natural ingredient. Try a little science experiment I enjoy with my kids, first seen on the Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception website. All you need is wintergreen flavored Life Savers candies and a dark bathroom with a mirror. While facing the mirror in the dark, pop a candy in your mouth and chew. As it crunches, watch carefully—you’ll see sparks! The oil illuminates the UV light waves produced by crushed sugar, creating a little light show that often occurs, but is rarely witnessed. Thanks to the unique minty ingredient, though, it’s visible in this fun activity.
How do you use wintergreen? In the kitchen? Seasonal celebrations? Personal care? Science experiments? Tweet your ideas @TomsofMaine!
This article was brought to you by Tom’s of Maine. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the position of Tom’s of Maine.