Article written by
Dipak HemrajHead of Research and Education
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
Menthol is the chemical that gives peppermint oil its characteristic “minty” taste.
Menthol adds mint flavor or smell to food, tobacco products, medicines, and some CBD or cannabis products. Menthol has a cooling and anesthetic (pain-killing) effect of suppressing the cough reflex and soothing a dry throat.
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What Is Menthol?
Although used for thousands of years in food, scents, and medicine, menthol is often known for its use in tobacco cigarettes. Tobacco companies initially added menthol in the 1920s, claiming that the cooling sensation menthol cigarettes caused was healthy and marketing menthol containing tobacco products as “fresh” and “clean.”
Tobacco products have a negative effect on your health. The addition of menthol to cigarettes can increase cigarette consumption and cause an increase in the absorption of carcinogens from tobacco smoke, as the soothing effect allows people to hold the smoke in their lungs for longer.
In 2009, the U.S. Congress banned the addition of flavors to cigarettes, except menthol. This was due to evidence that tobacco companies commonly used flavor additives to tobacco products to encourage young adults to smoke. At the time, Congress excluded menthol from the ban.
In April 2022, the FDA moved to include menthol in the ban due to new studies showing that menthol cigarette use was more likely to cause addiction in adolescents.
Menthol is also naturally found in small amounts in cannabis, with some strains containing enough to create a slight cooling sensation in the mouth when smoked. Just as with tobacco, the presence of menthol in cannabis cigarettes does not prevent damage to smokers’ lungs. It is also worth noting that menthol has therapeutic uses, and its cooling effects can be useful for combating some skin conditions, digestive issues, and hypersalivation.
Although poisonous in substantial doses, menthol is safe to eat and has been used as a natural flavor for thousands of years. Menthol is commonly used in toothpaste, candy, and decongestants.
Menthol is also often added to salves containing CBD due to menthol’s soothing sensation on the skin. Provided you don’t have a menthol allergy, the amount of menthol found in cannabis-containing edibles or salves containing cannabinoids is perfectly safe.
- Smells and tastes like mint
- Creates a cooling sensation when applied to the skin, eaten, or inhaled
- Helps dull pain
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Health Benefits of Menthol
Menthol has been used in medicines worldwide for thousands of years, with the oldest documented use of menthol as a digestive aid dating back to 1600 BC. Modern menthol medicines include throat lozenges, decongestants, topical pain relievers, digestive aids, and essential oils.
Menthol provides a cooling effect by interacting with your nerves to make the area less sensitive to heat and pain. One study has shown that applying menthol after surgery helps dull post-operative pain. Other studies into migraines found that menthol applied to the skin of the forehead can significantly reduce the strength and duration of migraines and tension headaches.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
When eaten, menthol can have an anti-spasmodic effect on your stomach and gut. Studies have shown that the ingestion of menthol-containing peppermint oil helps relieve IBS symptoms such as pain, cramps, and bloating.
Relief of Cold Symptoms
Although menthol is used in a wide range of decongestant medications, studies have shown menthol itself does not reduce decongestion or improve airflow. However, menthol does give the sensation of having a clearer airway, making it effective at treating the sensation of blocked sinuses.
Potential Risks and Side Effects
Increases the Consumption of Tobacco Products
Adding menthol to tobacco products makes tobacco smoke feel less harsh when inhaled. This reduces painful side effects such as a burning sensation or cough and makes it easier for those new to smoking to take up the habit.
Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have declared menthol cigarettes a public health risk and banned the production and sale of menthol cigarettes. In the U.S., Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island have already banned the sale of menthol cigarettes, with the FDA proposing a menthol ban in 2022.
For decades, the tobacco industry has marketed menthol cigarettes more heavily in African American communities. The aggressive marketing of menthol cigarettes has led to a disproportionate number of Black smokers. This, in turn, leads to more young people smoking and existing smokers smoking more aggressively, with negative effects on the health of Black communities.
May Increase Toxin Absorption
Menthol cigarettes may cause increased absorption of nicotine and carcinogens from tobacco smoke than other tobacco products. Menthol numbs the throat and makes cell membranes more permeable, allowing known carcinogens such as N-nitrosonornicotine to penetrate deeper into the throat and mouth cell lining.
May Irritate the Skin
Pure menthol oil can irritate the skin and eyes, and lower concentrations can cause itching, redness, and a stinging sensation for some people.
Cannabis Strains High in Menthol
- Amnesia Haze
- Girl Scout Cookies
- Jack Herer
- OG Kush
- Super Silver Haze
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Frequently Asked Questions
What does menthol do to your body?
Menthol stimulates your body’s cold receptors by interfering with calcium channels in your nerves. This creates a cold sensation and reduces pain when menthol is eaten, applied to the skin, or inhaled.
What does menthol taste like?
Menthol has a cold, slightly astringent taste. Menthol is the dominant flavor in peppermint, so anything that tastes “minty” tastes like menthol.