You Asked: Can sports creams be harmful?

sports creamIn 2007, seventeen-year-old cross-country runner Arielle Newman was found dead in her home. Autopsy results were inconclusive. After a two-month investigation, the medical examiner concluded that Arielle Newman’s death was caused by methyl salicylate, the key ingredient in sports creams like Bengay and IcyHot. How can a muscle-soothing cream lead to such a tragedy? It seems to be a matter of dose.

Sports creams may seem harmless since they are routinely used for alleviating minor arthritic pains, back aches, strained muscles and joint pains. But those searching for instant relief may be easily tempted to over-apply the medication. There is no doubt that  methyl salicylate can be toxic when ingested but most cases of human toxicity occur as a result of topical over-application! Dr. Thomas Kearney, a professor of pharmacy at the University of California, is of the opinion that “topical application of methyl salicylate can be hazardous if it is smeared over 40 per cent of the body, if someone has a skin condition or if another medication interacts negatively with the products.”

Warning symptoms of methyl salicylate toxicity range from fatigue, nausea, hallucinations, dizziness, difficulty breathing, convulsions, ringing in the ears and vomiting. How well one recovers from methyl salicylate poisoning is dependent upon how quickly the treatment is received and on the amount of salicylate present in the blood.

Although synthetic methyl salicylate is prominently known for its role as an analgesic in sports creams, the compound also occurs naturally in oil of wintergreen. The plant likely produces it to ward off predators. Historically methyl salicylate was isolated from the plant by distillation but now it is produced commercially through the esterification of salicylic acid with methanol.

Oil of wintergreen is a popular flavouring agent used in food, chewing gum and candies. Not to worry! 0.04% is the highest amount of methyl salicylate used in candy flavouring. In addition to being a flavour agent, wintergreen oil is a trendy fragrance, perfume and body oil. Exposure through these products is very different from applying excessive amounts to the skin. Remember to use creams containing methyl salicylate only according to directions on the label.


Alexandra Pires-Ménard

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