We all think of over-the-counter-sports creams as safe to use. They can be easily picked up at the local drugstore and because they are topically applied, they are often applied excessively to areas of injury and pain.
But, did you know that one of the common MAIN INGREDIENTS in sports creams can be hazardous and even fatal if used liberally enough to cause an overdose? The ingredient, Methyl Salicylate, is responsible for one known death and many other cases of toxicity. And this is just one of many dangerous chemicals found in sports creams. Other problematic chemicals include camphor, petroleum, propylene glycol, triethanolamine and polysorbate-80.
Since chemicals absorbed through the skin are not broken down by enzymes and removed, they tend to accumulate over time. And it’s the gradual, cumulative effects of long-term, repeated exposures that are the real concern.
A True Case of Death By Sports Cream Overdose
Take, for example, the case of Arielle Newman, a 17-year-old cross-country and track star from Notre Dame Academy, NY who died in April 2007 from accidental overdose of methyl salicylate (the wintergreen scented ingredient found in products like Icy Hot, Tiger Balm and Ben Gay). It was determined that her body had absorbed a toxic amount of this ingredient as the chemical was absorbed over time by repeated use.
This sad story highlights an important fact that most of the general public (you and me) don’t really think about all that much—that our skin is also an organ and that it IS possible to cause harm and even DEATH, by what you apply to the skin. The death of Arielle Newman, though a rare and extreme case, should serve as a warning to all of us, and especially coaches, trainers, athletes and parents to pay more attention to the chemicals we are applying to our skin.
So, let’s take a closer look at the top 6 chemicals commonly found in sports creams and the dangers they pose:
Methyl Salicylate is a chemical relative of aspirin and both drugs belong to the anti-inflammatory analgesics known as salicylates. Methyl Salicylate is more toxic than aspirin and is dangerous to consume orally. This information should give us a head’s up. Arielle’s death shows us that if enough of this chemical is absorbed through the skin, then it is possible to reach toxic levels by topical administration as well. The chemical enters the bloodstream through the organ of the skin and both heat and exercise (which increase the blood circulation) increase the absorption of methyl salicylate.
Unfortunately, even many medical professionals do not realize how easily methyl salicylate enters the bloodstream after being topically applied to the skin—even though the toxicity of oral ingestion of the chemical IS well know in the medical community, including pharmacists and poison control professionals. The warning signs of overdose are the same whether the chemical is absorbed through the skin or orally ingested. Signs of overdose of methyl salicylate are: tinnitus (ringing in the ears), stomach upset, rapid breathing, agitation, irregular heartbeat, nausea, dizziness and convulsions – and, if not immediately treated can lead to heart failure, respiratory arrest and death.
Camphor is another common ingredient in over-the-counter analgesic sports creams that can be problematic. It is often included because of its ability to overwhelm the nerves of the skin so that they cannot properly send pain signals for some period of time. This action of overwhelming the nerves produces the familiar tingly icy-hot feeling that masks pain.
Products containing high percentages of camphor need to be used with caution and care. Patients can become very sick if they swallow chest rub made with camphor. Convulsions can begin within five minutes of ingestion. Excessive amounts of camphor rubbed on the chest can cause seizures as well. As little as 10ml of camphor can be lethal for children when swallowed. In addition to seizures, symptoms of camphor poisoning include nausea, vomiting, agitation and stomachaches.
Furthermore, doctors at the American Academy of Family Physicians report that camphor has no redeeming medical value. The poisons in the oil of camphor can transmit through the skin, making it a dangerous solution for pregnant women. Camphor can transfer through the placenta to the fetus, causing birth defects and stillborn births. Camphorated oil can be particularly dangerous and can cause birth defects even when inhaled.
One final note on camphor: it is exceptionally dangerous for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It interferes with the medicine used in Parkinson and increases the toxicity level. It can turn to be very poisonous in such cases.
Many analgesic sports creams also contain petroleum products. Petroleum based ingredients like the paraffin petroleum can have negative side effects including finding the petroleum byproduct in breast tumors, suffocation of the skin, premature aging and aggravated acne.
Also, Petroleum jelly and oils are designed so that they remain on the surface of the skin and cannot penetrate very deeply (if at all) into the subcutaneous tissue. So, unless your injury is limited to the surface area of the skin, oil-based formulas cannot make contact with the injured cells.
Ingredients of Ten of the Most Popular Analgesic Sports Creams on the Market
Let’s take a look:
|PRODUCT||METHYL/TROLAMINE SALICYLATE||CAMPHOR||MENTHOL||PETROLEUM BASE|
|Ben Gay “Ultra Strength”||30%||4%||10%||NO|
|Icy Hot Stick/Cream||30%||None||10%||YES|
|Icy Hot Balm||29%||None||7.6%||YES|
|Thera-Gesic “Maximum Strength”||15%||None||1%||YES|
|Flex All “Ultra Plus”||10%||3.1%||16%||NO|
Propylene glycol is a form of mineral oil, an alcohol produced by fermentation of yeast and carbohydrates. The form most pertinent to this article is the pharmaceutical grade. Although less concentrated than industrial grade propylene glycol--which is used as an active ingredient in engine coolants and antifreeze, airplane de-icers, polyurethane cushions, and paint products-- the pharmaceutical grade is still controversial because it is ingested or applied topically. The pharmaceutical grade of propylene glycol has been found to provoke allergic reactions in people with eczema and other skin allergies, even in formulations of much less than 50%. The FDA lists the following as effects of overdose: metabolic acidosis, lactic acidosis, acute tubular necrosis, allergic contact dermatitis, hemolysis, central nervous system depression, seizures, arrhythmias and nephrotoxicity.
Also of note: Studies done in vitro on mammalian cells revealed that some cells underwent mutation when exposed to propylene glycol. Other research conducted twenty and thirty years ago documented toxic effects after repeated small doses of propylene glycol were ingested or repeatedly applied to the skin.
Many popular sports creams contain triethanolamine, which is considered a moderate hazard ingredient by the Cosmetics Database. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, and cosmetic Ingredient Review, strong evidence exists that triethanolamine is “a human skin, immune system, and respiratory toxicant.” It has been shown in animal studies to affect the sensory organs at very low doses (especially when used around the mouth, eyes and lips) and to show positive mutation results on mammalian cells. Triethanolamine has also been shown to cause liver and bladder cancer and testicular changes.
The Cosmetics Database reports concerns about Polysorbate 80 being linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ toxicity and neurotoxicity. In 2006, animal studies showed reproductive effects at very low doses and in vitro tests on mammalian cells showed positive mutation results.
Key Differences Between Dit Da Jow and Other OTC Analgesic Sports Creams
Eastern medicine has held the secret to CHEMICAL-FREE pain relief for many centuries. Many elite martial artists through the centuries have closely guarded this knowledge because of the competitive advantage it has provided them. Their secret is known as Dit Da Jow-- a 100% natural analgesic blend of herbs that aids and supports the body in its own self-healing work.
Plum Dragon Dit Da Jow formulas are designed to:
Reduce inflammation and pain
Increase blood circulation (to drive out stasis and reduce swelling)
Promote healing and strengthening of bone, sinew, and muscle
Promote the health and proper movement of joints
Deal with arthritic types of complaints, range of motion issues, and pain
- Masking vs Healing – Most sports creams are oil-based substances, with the addition of essential oils, waxes and chemicals. Plum Dragon Dit Da Jow is an alcohol-based liniment, in which whole herbs (with all of their bioactive compounds in tact--not just their oils) are aged to create a nutrition dense, medicinal liniment. Whereas most sports creams focus more on the physical sensation that masks the pain by overwhelming the nerves at the skin level, Plum Dragon Dit Da Jow formulas do not generally offer any strong tingling sensation to the user as their goal is to heal the injury or relieve the pain, not mask the pain.
- Quality of Ingredients – Sports creams are highly processed. They include more cheaply-made oils such as dementholised mint oil, and fragrances that alter how the product smells without adding therapeutic benefit. They also contain potentially harmful ingredients such as chemical food coloring and the chemicals we named earlier. By contrast, Plum Dragon Dit Da Jow formulas are free of contaminants, chemicals, added fragrances and colorings. Furthermore, they are aged, stored and distributed in glass from start to finish to prevent any plastic chemicals from leeching into the formulas.
- Penetration Level - While balms and creams can be convenient to rub into the skin and keep mess to a minimum, they sit on the surface of the skin and cannot penetrate deeply to the injured cells below the surface. Plum Dragon Dit Da Jow can penetrate deeply into the subcutaneous tissue. It also can be applied in a diverse number of ways including using it as a plaster, a poultice, a soak, or added to a bath.
It is difficult to further compare OTC analgesic sports creams to a well-made Dit Da Jow formula beyond this context, because, in many ways, they are a completely different set of products. Hopefully, this summary has given you a clear picture of just how different Plum Dragon Dit Da Jow is from these chemical/camphor/menthol-based analgesic rubs and why you need to make the switch in your gym bag, dojo, training school, and acupuncture or chiropractic clinic.
For purity, overall health, rapid recovery and deep healing of an injury, Plum Dragon Dit Da Jow formulas are the only viable, natural solution to turn to.
- Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database
- Hill A. "Make-up kit holds hidden danger of cancer," The Observer (April 7, 2002)
- Danon A, Ben-Shimon S, Ben –Zvi Zi. Effect of exercise and heat exposure on percutaneous absorption of methyl salicylate. Eur J Clin Pharmacol 1986; 31:49-52
- Joss JD, LeBlond RF. Potentiation of warfarin anticoagulation associated with topical methyl salicylate. Ann Pharmacother 2000; 34:729-733.
- Stan Reents, PharmD. Sports Creams. Revised: 1/15/2016 http://www.athleteinme.com/articleview.aspx?id=712
- Camphor Dangers. http://www.livestrong.com/article/111501-camphor-dangers/
- Side Effects of Petrolatum. http://www.livestrong.com/article/226763-side-effects-of-petrolatum/
- "Final Report of the Safety Assessment of Propylene Glycol and Polypropylene Glycols," Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel
- Further concerns exist about Polysorbate 80's effects on the reproductive system. Studies were published in the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in 2005 that linked Polysorbate 80 to nonimmunologic anaphylactoid reactions, or anaphylactoid shock, and ultimately, to death from this reaction, including in a pregnant woman receiving an IV drip of multi-vitamins including Polysorbate 80. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16400901 Another study published in Food Chemical Toxicology found that rats injected with Polysorbate 80 underwent significant reproductive changes.