Rangoon, Burma, 1870. In his laboratory a herbalist named Aw Chu Kin worked hard by mixing herbs and oils together, he was looking for something able to relieve pain and to make humans forget the suffering caused by muscle and joint ailments. And eventually he found it. And it was so powerful that a large commercial empire was developed on the basis of this herbal product, carried on by the children of Aw Chu Kin and by the children of his children. We are talking about tiger balm, one of the most famous ointments against different types of pain but also respiratory diseases. It should be added, however, that the name tiger does not derive from the fact that the product contains parts of a tiger, as it is sometimes believed, this is not and never was, but because the meaning of the name of one of Aw Chu Kin's children translated into English was tiger. But what is behind this balm, only tradition and belief or is there also a solid scientific basis? Let's find out.
Tiger balm, what science says
Tiger balm is a creamy paraffin-based product to which particular ingredients are added, such as mint oil, camphor, eucalyptus, cajuput, cloves and, in the strongest variant, also cinnamon. Scientific studies have observed that the application of tiger balm locally on the temples three times, the second application after thirty minutes from the first and the third one after an hour from the second, in case of tension headaches led to a significant improvement, even comparable to the action of drugs (Schattner et al, Aust Fam Physician, 1996). Not only that, massage on the legs with tiger balm are able to improve the blood flow. Benefits have been observed in cases of stiff neck and lower back pain following applications of creams containing camphor, menthol and eucalyptus. Finally, the application on the chest and throat of the product acts for the well-being of the respiratory tract, counteracting inflammation, cough and asthma (Antonelli et al, JPPR, 2020). It is believed that the proven properties of the balm are to be attributed to the synergy of the essential oils it contains but that, in particular, there are two ingredients that most contribute to its beneficial action, namely menthol and camphor ((Antonelli et al, JPPR , 2020). In fact, camphor is antimicrobial, capable of counteracting cough but also pain. Menthol, contained in mint, leaves a sensation of coolness, relaxes the muscles and thus fights pain. When menthol is inhaled it calms the cough and improves breathing. These important properties are combined with the antioxidant and pain-relieving effects of cloves, the analgesic action of cajuput, which also decongests the airways, such as eucalyptus, and the anti-inflammatory properties of cinnamon (Antonelli et al, JPPR, 2020).
White tiger balm for headaches and colds
Inspired by the tiger balm recipe we see how to make a beneficial ointment against headaches and useful in case of colds. Instead of paraffin, we will use only vegetable oils and beeswax. In a saucepan, pour 40 ml of jojoba or sunflower oil, or a mixture of the two, and 8 grams of beeswax. Heat in a double boiler until the beeswax has melted. Remove from the heat and add 5 drops of mint essential oil, 5 drops of camphor essential oil, 5 drops of cajuput essential oil, which you can substitute with eucalyptus, and 1 drop of clove essential oil. Pour into a small jar and leave to cool. You can apply on the temples or neck in case of headache or on throat, nostrils and chest in case of cold, allergy, asthma.
Red tiger balm against muscle pain
In a saucepan pour 40 ml of vegetable oil, such as jojoba, sunflower or even better arnica infused oil, and 8 grams of beeswax. Melt the wax in a double boiler, then remove from heat and add 5 drops of mint essential oil, 5 drops of camphor oil, 3 drops of clove essential oil, 3 drops of cajuput or eucalyptus essential oil, and 3 drops of cinnamon essential oil. Pour into a jar, let it cool and then apply to your neck, back or legs to counter pain and poor circulation.
Tiger balm, contraindications
Given the presence of camphor, tiger balm should not be used on children and in pregnant or breastfeeding women. To avoid local irritation, the balm should not be used for long periods of time. Finally, the product, due to the presence of essential oils, should only be applied to intact skin (Antonelli et al, JPPR, 2020).