Wintergreen Essential Oil : (Gaultheria fragrantissima or Gaultheria procumbens) Method of extraction: water or steam distillation. Plant used: leaves. Color: clear to pale yellow. Consistency: thin. Aroma note: top. Strength of aroma: Strong. Wintergreen is sometimes mistakenly believed to be a member of the mint family partly because it possesses a strong, crisp, mint-like aroma. Aromatic Description: Crisp, fresh, woody, sweet, birch-like aroma. Major Constituents: Methyl salicylate: 96.0-99.5%, an ester that can be toxic when not used with great care.
Comparing Aspirin and Wintergreen
The chemical name of Aspirin is acetyl salicylic acid and it is a synthetic derivative of salicylic acid. Wintergreen essential oil is 96-99% methyl salicylate, an ester that can be toxic when not used with great care. Salicylates are known to be pain relievers and blood thinners. Though both Aspirin and Wintergreen come from salicylates, Wintergreen is much stronger.
Oral Use of Wintergreen
Taken orally Wintergreen essential oil is rapidly absorbed and in 30 minutes 40% of the methyl salicylate was found in blood plasma. Once absorbed, salicylates cross rapidly into all bodily fluids including saliva and milk. Salicylates cross with ease into the placenta and are thus contraindicated in pregnant women. Depending on the dosage, oral Wintergreen could be extremely toxic.
Methyl salicylate directly or indirectly affects most organ systems. The potential toxic effects are :
Pediatric exposures to methyl salicylate continues to be a problem. Oil of Wintergreen in the form of candy flavoring was ingested by a 21 month old boy who developed vomiting, lethargy and rapid respirations but recovered rapidly with IV fluids and sodium bicarbonate (Howrie et al, 1985). Oil of Wintergreen continues to be an ingredient in teething gel. Accidents and death have been reported in children under the age of 6 from using medicated oils containing methyl salicylate. (Davis, 2007)
Drug Interactions using Wintergreen
In addition to the above toxic results with oral use of Wintergreen, it also has untoward drug interactions. The salicylic acid of Aspirin has the effect of blood thinning. A baby Aspirin 81 mg is recommended daily to act as a mild blood thinner to prevent cardiovascular blood clots. The methyl salicylate in Wintergreen has the same blood thinning effect only much stronger than aspirin. This occurs both with oral and topical use of Wintergreen. It would be contraindicated for someone taking blood thinners such as Wayfarin and Coumadin.
Topical Use of Wintergreen Essential Oil
The topical use of Wintergreen is less toxic but still of concern. In a massage oil blend methyl salicylate is found in the blood 20 to 30 minutes after application. A massage oil blend should not contain more than 1-2% Wintergreen. Continuous use seems the most worrying for toxicity. A subject who was daily applying a herbal skin cream containing methyl salicylate for his psoriasis became quite suddenly and acutely unwell, with tinnitus, vomiting, rapid respiration and typical acid/base disturbance; a classical presentation of salicylate poisoning. His open skin lesions and covering with layers enhanced the absorption. (Bell and Duggin, 2002) Even a low level but prolonged use of salicylates during pregnancy has caused reduced weights at birth, increase in perinatal mortality, anemia, and complicated deliveries. It is definitely prohibited during pregnancy.
Wintergreen Oil Properties: Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and warming. It is used in joint Inflammation, pain management, and rheumatoid arthritis. [Salvatore Battaglia, The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy (Australia: The Perfect Potion, 2003), 324.]
Wintergreen Essential Oil is praised for its ability to reduce pain and inflammation. However, it must be used sparingly and with great caution as numerous reports of poisoning have occurred. See the Safety Information section below for more details on contraindications.
Salvatore Battaglia writes that Wintergreen Essential Oil is typically produced by first soaking wintergreen leaves in warm water. Interestingly, Battaglia and other sources indicate that methyl salicylate is not present in fresh wintergreen leaves. When the leaves are soaked in water, the methyl salicylate is produced as a result of the decomposition of the leaves. If choosing to use Wintergreen Essential Oil, be certain to purchase the oil from a highly reputable company because synthetic methyl salicylate is sometimes passed off as pure Wintergreen Essential Oil.
[Salvatore Battaglia, The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy (Australia: The Perfect Potion, 2003), 324.]
Commercial Products containing Wintergreen Oil
Many toilet bowl cleaners contain Wintergreen in small amounts usually 0.5 – 4.0%. Listerine Mouth Wash contains 0.6 % and is probably safe to use. But many of the Nilador Air Fresheners contain as much as 13 %. Breathing this day after day could become internally toxic. Especially for someone taking a blood thinner.
In Aromatherapy, use Wintergreen essential oil sparingly if at all. Numerous reports of poisoning have occurred. Tisserand and Young warn that Wintergreen Essential Oil poses a hazard for toxicity, drug interaction, it can inhibit blood clotting, and high doses are teratogenic (harmful to fetuses and embryos). Avoid use of Wintergreen with children, during pregnancy and breastfeeding and by those taking anticoagulant medication. They recommend a dermal maximum of 2.4% and advise to use with caution with skin that is sensitive or damaged.
The hazards of the use of Wintergreen are linked to its toxicity, to the risks of interactions with prescriptions drugs, and with pathological conditions such as hematological disorders and renal problems. Particularly problematic is the chronic toxicity which might develop weeks or months after using the products and which can be difficult to spot It can be safely stated then that Wintergreen and all methyl salicylate containing essential oils such as Birch essential oil should never be used on children, pregnant and lactating women, and people with chronic blood disorders. As there are many wonderful anti-inflammatory essential oils that do not pose these risks, I would avoid adding it to your massage blends.
The International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy, Vol. 4, Issue 3, Winter 2015. “A Short Review of Wintergreen / Methyl Salicylate Toxicity” by Marco Valussi, BSc Herbal Medicine, UK.
Sources cited in Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young, Essential Oil Safety (Second Edition. United Kingdom: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2014), 469.]
Wintergreen Essential Oil