The Magic Behind Tiger Balm

A comparison of Tiger Balm and other topical pain relief products

Personal collection of pain relieving creams. / Photo by Body My

Personal collection of pain relieving creams. / Photo by Body My

I love Tiger Balm.  It is amazing.  Like Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I use Tiger Balm as a cure-all for muscle aches, sprains, strains, headaches, migraines, cough, and congestion in my head and lungs.

One time at the store I couldn’t find Tiger Balm and had to settle for Vicks VapoRub.  I have also had athletic trainers swear by Biofreeze.  Is there actually a difference between these products, or is it all in my head?  I did some research and put together a chart showing the active ingredients for comparison’s sake.  I chose popular brands that had products similar to my favorite–Tiger Balm Ultra (affiliate).  


Active Ingredients of Products Similar To Tiger Balm

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ProductPictureMenthol (%)Camphor (%)Methyl
Salicylates (%)
Tiger Balm Ultra [1]1111
Vicks VapoRub [2]2.64.8Eucalyptus Oil 1.2%
Biofreeze Professional Gel [3]5
Icy Hot [4]7.629
Ben Gay Ultra Strength [5]10430
Rock Sauce [6]]1020Capsaicin 0.002%
Aspercreme [7]Lidocaine 4%



Menthol is used in a variety of substances for a variety of applications.  In the above products, it is probably used as a topical analgesic (basically a pain relieving cream applied to skin) or a cough suppressant [2].  It works here as a “counterirritant” which basically means your body feels the sensation of heat from the menthol as opposed to the pain nearby.  


Camphor historically had a wide variety of uses like fireworks, mothballs, and as an ingredient for embalming ancient Egyptian mummies [8].  In 1982, the FDA set the final rule for the maximum allowable limit of camphor in consumer products to 11% due to poisonings from ingesting too much [9].  In the above products, camphor, like menthol, is seemingly used as a topical analgesic and a cough suppressant [2].  It works, like menthol, as a counterirritant.  

Methyl Salicylates

Methyl salicylates in the above products is likely used as a counterirritant [10].  Methyl salicylates are also the reason that Wint-O-Green Life Savers ® spark when you bite into them [11].  

Eucalyptus Oil

Eucalyptus oil, listed in Vick’s Vapor Rub, is used as a cough suppressant [2].  It may also have properties of a topical analgesic [12]. Interestingly, it can also be present in insect repellents.  


Capsaicin is an active component in chili peppers and causes a burning sensation on our skin.  In Rock Sauce, it is likely used as a topical analgesic again.  Capsaicin may be used as a counterirritant here again, but it could also work by stimulating the release of a compound used in nerves communicating pain to the brain [13].  


Lidocaine is different than the other active ingredients listed above.  Instead of working as a counterirritant, it works by blocking nerve signals in the skin.  It is considered a local anesthetic and has numbing properties [14].  

My Conclusions

My Tiger Balms are well worn because they go everywhere with me. / Photo by Body My

My Tiger Balms are well worn because they go everywhere with me. / Photo by Body My

All of the above products seem to work similarly by tricking your nerves into not sending pain signals to your brain.  I have used all of the products listed above except Rock Sauce (currently out of stock), which I didn’t know about until I started researching this article.  By far and away, I still love Tiger Balm the best.  I think Tiger Balm has the best texture, smell, and tingle.  Even if it isn’t as magical as I thought it was.


[1]    “Tiger Balm Ultra.” Tiger Balm. Haw Par Corporation, 2014. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[2]    SnowDragon06, and NaomiDe. “VapoRub™ Topical Ointment.” Vicks®. Proctor & Gamble, 29 June 2012. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[3]    “Biofreeze Professional Gel.” Biofreeze. Performance Health, Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[4]    “ICY HOT BALM.” Icy Hot Balm. Chattem, Inc, 2014. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[5]    “Ultra Strength BENGAY® Cream.” BENGAY®. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. Web. 16 Sept. 2016.

[6]    “Bring the Fire.” RockTape. RockTape. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.

[7]    “Aspercreme Pain Relieving Cremes and Gels: Pain Relieving Creme with Lidocaine.” Aspercreme Pain Relieving Cremes and Gels: Pain Relieving Creme with Lidocaine. Chattem, Inc. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[8]    “Camphor.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[9]    Novitch, Mark, and Richard Schweiker. “Food and Drug Administration {Docket No. 80N-0227} New Drugs; Caphorated Oil Drug Products for Human Use Final Rule.” Federal Register 47.183 (1982): 41719. U. S. Food and Drug Administration. HeinOnline, 29 Oct. 2014. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[10]    “Methyl Salicylate-menthol Topical.” WebMD. WebMD. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[11]    “Why Do Wint-O-Green Life Savers Spark in the Dark?” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks, 03 Nov. 2000. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[12]    Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database Consumer Version. “EUCALYPTUS.” WebMD. WebMD LLC. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[13]    Healthwise Staff. “Capsaicin.” WebMD. Ed. Adam Husney and Kathleen Romito. WebMD LLC, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[14]    First Databank, Inc. “Lidocaine Topical.” WebMD. WebMD LLC. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.


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  1. Interesting article! Looking to buy some miracle balm, I notice that there is Tiger Balm and Tiger Balm Red. What’s the difference and do you recommend one over the other?

    • Tiger Balm Extra is the red one. It has 1% less menthol than Tiger Balm Ultra (the white one) and also has cinnamon and some other things that give it the red hue and more of a cinnamon-y smell. Some people like that smell, but I prefer the small of Tiger Balm Ultra. It is also a smidge more tingly (it could just be in by head though) and is white/clear ish so I don’t worry about it getting on my clothes as much. I have never had an issue with Tiger Balm Extra staining my clothes, but I just get nervous about it. So I prefer Tiger Balm Ultra (white), but if you want more of a cinnamon smell vs menthol smell, Extra (red) may be for you.

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