What is Wintergreen Oil?

Henry Gaudet

Wintergreen oil is produced from the leaves of the gaultheria procumbens, a shrub that is known by many names, including wintergreen, teaberry, boxberry, deerberry, checkerberry, spice berry, wax cluster and partridgeberry. Most commonly used as a food flavoring, wintergreen oil often is used in candy, chewing gum, mouthwash, toothpaste and other mint-flavored products. It frequently is used as a traditional herbal remedy and is a component of many over-the-counter treatments as well.

Wintergreen oil is often added to chewing gum to help freshen breath.
Wintergreen oil is often added to chewing gum to help freshen breath.

Although technically referring to the gaultheria procumbens, the word “wintergreen” is often used as a synonym for “evergreen,” referring to plants that remain green throughout the year. Wintergreen is a small shrub, standing about 5 or 6 inches (12.7 to 15.2 cm) tall. The plant is native to the northern and eastern portions of North America and grows primarily in woodlands. It flowers in late summer, producing white or pink flowers, with bright red fruits soon following. The leaves and berries of the wintergreen are edible.

European settlers used wintergreen to help treat colic.
European settlers used wintergreen to help treat colic.

Early American Indians are known to have used the fruit and leaves of the wintergreen for medicinal purposes, treating pain and respiratory complaints. Used in teas or poultices or simply chewed and ingested, wintergreen was used to treat rheumatism, fever, aches and pains and to improve respiration. European settlers also turned to wintergreen as a folk remedy to treat colic, various skin conditions, cold symptoms, sore throats and tooth decay. The first recorded use of wintergreen oil as an active ingredient for a medication was in Swaim's Panacea, first available in 1820.

Mouthwash often contains wintergreen oil.
Mouthwash often contains wintergreen oil.

Leaves of the wintergreen are steam-distilled to produce the oil, a pale yellow or pinkish liquid with a strong distinctive scent. Wintergreen oil is primarily composed of methyl salicylate and is an analgesic similar to aspirin. It can, however, be toxic; a single teaspoon (5 ml) of wintergreen oil is equivalent to roughly 20 doses of aspirin and potentially is fatal. Levels of the oil used for flavoring typically are no greater than .04 percent. Most often, the oil is used topically in over-the-counter liniments or inhaled as vapors to treat congestion.

One teaspoon of wintergreen oil is equivalent to approximately twenty doses of aspirin.
One teaspoon of wintergreen oil is equivalent to approximately twenty doses of aspirin.

Wintergreen's similarities to aspirin mean that people allergic to that drug should avoid wintergreen oil. People taking warfarin or blood-thinning agents also should avoid the oil. Undiluted wintergreen oil can be very dangerous if ingested or absorbed through the skin, even in small doses. Excessive levels of the oil can trigger nausea, tinnitus and vomiting; other possible outcomes include excessive bleeding, kidney and liver damage or even death. Anyone experiencing side effects from any medication, including wintergreen oil, should seek immediate medical attention.

When used as a massage oil, wintergreen essential oil should be diluted to 10 percent.
When used as a massage oil, wintergreen essential oil should be diluted to 10 percent.

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Discussion Comments


@alisha-- Yea, you're right. A lot of the stuff on the market is synthetic. One way to know whether the ones you find are real or not would be to look at the percentage of methyl salicylate in it. Real wintergreen oil will have around ninety-nine percent methyl slicylate.

The other way to know is to just look at the price. Anything less than $5 per ounce is probably synthetic.

You can also ask about it from your pharmacy. Sometimes they have it too and it's usually the real one (especially if it says "essential oil"). I get mine from my pharmacy.

Good luck!


I read that most of what is labeled as wintergreen oil on the market is synthetic oils or birch oil which is completely different.

I have weak ankle tendons that results in sprains and an injury from a recent car accident. I have heard that using tiny amounts of diluted pure wintergreen oil for massage would do wonders for my sprains and injury.

But now that I've read about these faux wintergreen oils on the market, I don't know if I will end up purchasing the real thing. Is there an organization that possible approves or certifies certain manufacturers/stores that sell wintergreen oil and the like? How can I make sure that I'm really buying wintergreen oil?


Wow, I had no idea that wintergreen oil could be so dangerous. I have an all natural face cream with wintergreen oil that helps treat my acne. It actually works really well, it dries up the acne I have and prevents new breakouts from happening.

I didn't know that wintergreen oil can be absorbed by the skin but I have never had any type of reaction to it before. I'm hoping that the manufacturers didn't put more than the amount that's safe.

If it were too much though, would I have any skin reactions to it or would it there be side effects like nausea that also applies to ingesting wintergreen oil?

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