Today’s question and answer post is brought to us by Forebrain, the newest lobe of the Beauty Brains. Please join us in welcoming Forebrain to the Beauty Brains community!
Michelle’s menthol madness: I heard from a friend that the menthol in products, such as lip balm and face wash, is actually irritating, and the tingling effect that one feels is your face or lips or whatever getting chapped. I figure that menthol can irritate your skin, but is it really harmful to the skin?
Forebrain’s inaugural response:
Your friend is only partially right. Menthol may sometimes be irritating, but the cooling sensation that you feel when you use menthol-containing lip balm or facewash is not because your skin is getting chapped. The sensation is actually caused by the effect of the menthol on your nerve endings.
How does menthol work?
The menthol that is used in cosmetics is a member of the alcohol family and is either synthetically made or derived from peppermint oil. When it is applied to the skin, its chemical structure allows it to quickly penetrate the skin layers and stimulate the cold-sensing nerve endings in the skin, creating a cooling sensation. In fact, you may have noticed that menthol is usually one of the active ingredients in topical anesthetics and anti-itch creams since it reduces the burning and irritating sensations in the skin.
So if menthol soothes, why does it irritate?
Despite menthol’s scientifically proven anti-irritant properties, a surprising number of people report it to be highly irritating in cosmetics. There are several different reasons for this, the following three being the most common:
- Menthol is an alcohol, a compound family known for its drying properties in the skin. For some people menthol dehydrates the skin or lips and makes them feel chapped and irritated.
- The irritation may also be due to the skin’s allergic reaction to the menthol itself, in which case you should definitely stay away from products containing menthol to keep your skin happy.
- Finally, menthol is able to quickly penetrate the skin layers sometimes carrying other chemical compounds with it. (Some medication creams even use menthol to deliver medicine through the skin and into the body!) It is possible that the irritation you feel comes not from the menthol itself, but from one of the other ingredients that penetrated the skin along with it. Check the product label to make sure there are no other irritating ingredients present and proceed with caution.
The Beauty Brains bottom line
As far as I can tell, there is no scientific evidence showing that menthol is harmful to the skin or lips when used in cosmetics aside from dryness and mild irritation in some. However, since everyone’s body and metabolism are slightly different, it is not surprising that menthol may create a cooling sensation in some people, and skin irritation in others. Your best bet is to always do a patch test before you begin using any new product, especially if it has ingredients that you are unsure about. If you do find that menthol-containing products cause irritation then I would recommend staying away from camphor as well since it will likely irritate your skin or lips also.
Cool fact (no pun intended): When menthol activates the cold-receptors in the skin (or lips or tongue), you perceive other cold sensations as even colder!
Wu, P-C., Chang, J-S., Huang, Y-B., Chai, C-Y., Tsai, Y-H. (2001). Evaluation of percutaneous absorption and skin irritation of ketoprofen through rat skin: in vitro and in vivo study. International Journal of Pharmaceutics, 222, 225-235.
Yosipovitch, G., Szolar, C., Hui, X.Y., Maibach, H. (1996). Effect of topically applied menthol on thermal, pain and itch sensations and biophysical properties of the skin. Archives of dermatological research, 288, 245-248.