WAIT! Before You Buy Chest Rub Ointment, Read This.

WAIT! Before You Buy Chest Rub Ointment, Read This.

Your baby has a cold – YUCK!  It’s hard to see them suffer – nose running, then congested and coughing away.  You want to do something, ANYTHING to help ease the discomfort. But before you reach for that Sniffles and Snuffles or chest rub ointment, you might want to consider some information about the ingredients – even natural ones.

After investigating three cases of seizures in children, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a warning in 2008 to keep all camphor products away from children, as they can be poisonous when ingested. Nor should you use camphor if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

According to the Journal of Emergency Medicine, “Serious pediatric toxicity resulting from exposure to small amounts of camphor-containing products has long been a problem. Despite the FDA changes, camphor remains commonly available in many nonprescription vaporized or topical “cold” medications, topical musculoskeletal anesthetic “rubs” and “cold sore” preparations, though its efficacy is largely unproven. Data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers demonstrate that camphor continues to be a common source of pediatric exposures. A review of the literature reveals persistent reports of toxicity resulting from exposure to relatively small amounts. In the pediatric population, exposure to as little as 500 mg is cited as a cause of mortality. More commonly, 750 to 1000 mg is associated with the development of seizures and death. Currently available products with 10% camphor contain 500 mg in 5 ml. It is concluded that small doses are dangerous. In children less than 6 years of age, exposure to 500 mg or more requires rapid triage to the closest health care facility.”

To set the record straight regarding what I had heard about Vicks VapoRub and other cold and chest rubs/ointments with Camphor and other essential oils, I decided to talk with veteran Aromatherapist and Registered Nurse, Pat Antoniak of Natural Comfort Wellness Centre. Pat has developed and taught the Aromatherapy Practitioner Program for Langara College, Vancouver, BC. She teaches Advanced and Interest Courses for aromatherapists and a founding member and past-president of the BC Alliance Of Aromatherapy, past board member of the Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists and currently holds an editorial board position with the International Journal of Clinical Aromatherapy.

When I queried her about the good old-fashioned VICKS VapoRub our parents used on us as children, here is what she had to say:

“The original rub formulas used complete essential oils in their formulations.  When used in their completeness, the aroma molecule has checks and balances to help modify adverse effects.  It doesn’t necessarily remove the problems completely, but it often makes things safer to use.  At some point, the company began creating the camphor and menthol molecules in a lab, to use in their formulations, as it was cheaper to produce and the variability of natural ingredients could be avoided.  Now, without all the natural checks and balances, people still used the products in the ways they were accustomed to, but there was an increase in toxicity reactions in babies and toddlers being noted.  Eventually, the FDA required all products having camphor and menthol in their formulations to have a caution on their label. Canada followed suit a few years later.  It is interesting that even today, people don’t read the label for commercial colds/flu products, and they assume it is the same formulation they had when they were children.

As aromatherapists, we are aware that there are many essential oils with naturally occurring camphor and menthol molecules.  We look at the aromachemistry of oil and particularly the concentrations of phenols, phenolmethylethers (PMEs) and ketones in any essential oils being considered for high-risk clients; this includes the very young and very old.  Not only does it matter what the essential oil is, but how it is being used.  For the most part, an air diffusion in a room for colds will not display the same problems as a product used directly on the skin (this includes creams, ointments, baths and steam inhalations), as the concentration of essential oil will be very low.  However, most people leave the air diffusion going all day/night – this can lead to over-exposure.  Very young livers and kidneys are not yet equipped to deal with metabolizing such concentrations.  We follow the recommendations of Health Canada and FDA – no essential oils with camphor or menthol used in products until over at least 2 years of age.

Some essential oils to be avoided or used with great caution under the care of a qualified Registered Aromatherapist for infants and young children include, but are not limited to:

·         Eucalyptus (some cultivars are considered safe for babies, but these are not usually available in retail settings because of their price)

·         Rosemary

·         Camphor wood

·         Sweet Marjoram

·         Peppermint

·         Spearmint

·         Clove

·         Cinnamon

·         Sweet Basil

·         Oregano

·         Sweet Thyme

Another note is that some labels will say Oil of Eucalyptus – this is not necessarily Essential Oil of Eucalyptus”. So it is a buyer beware situation.




  1. Hello! I just received your products in the mail and I’m pleased with the scent and quality of your products. I’d love to offer them to my French-Canadian relatives for their young ones but the labels are poorly translated both in terms of grammar and meaning! In order to maintain credibility in French Canada, I recommend you hire a proper translator.

    • Thank you, Gabrielle. We received that feedback before. We were disappointed because we paid a professional translation company to do the translation for us. We will correct it on our next printing of labels. Thanks for your feedback. We appreciate hearing from our customers. All the best!

  2. great post!