Vicks VapoRub and Me

How the nostril-stinging salve helps me overcome chronic olfactory sensitivity, an Object Lesson

In 1894, the Greensboro pharmacist Lunsford Richardson II developed a mentholated topical ointment, Vicks Magic Croup Salve, to cure a common infant affliction: congestion and a barking cough. Named for Richardson’s brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick, according to some, and for the Vick seed catalog according to others, it was later rebranded as Vicks VapoRub. Hardly a one-off effort, VapoRub was only one among Richardson’s 21 patented remedies, including Vick’s Chill Tonic, Vick’s Turtle Oil Liniment, Vick’s Little Liver Pills and Little Laxative Pills, Vick’s Tar Heel Sarsaparilla, Vick’s Yellow Pine Tar Cough Syrup, and Vick’s Grippe Knockers. 

Today, people use Richardson’s salve for many purposes: to deter toenail fungus, headaches, ticks, mosquitoes, the scratching of cats, the marking of dogs, the consumption of hostas by deer, and the creaking of doors. Those of us who show palomino horses rub it in stallions’ nostrils to prevent them from scenting mares in heat. Glenn Beck uses it to weep on command. When anecdotal teenagers are not using it to enhance Ecstasy, they wonder on teen advice sites if rubbing it on their testicles will help them stay awake.

Camphor is derived from the woood of the 
Cinnamomum camphora, or camphor tree.
(Wikimedia Commons)

VapoRub is a compound of petrolatum, cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, thymol, and turpentine oil; the active components are camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil. (One can also buy the lemon-scented variety, which is contrary to all right-headed practice.) People around the world have found camphor handy for embalming, manufacturing furniture finishes, killing moths, and, in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, fetishizing their adopted daughter’s stockings. Because camphor is highly toxic when ingested, in 1983 the FDA mandated that over-the-counter products may contain no more than 11% of the substance. As for menthol, it can make just about any part of your body feel cooler, kill tracheal mites in honeybees, and make floral perfumes smell more flowery. Eucalyptus oil has many boring medicinal uses. And petroleum jelly, a byproduct of crude oil refining which we have no qualms about smearing on babies, makes things besides babies pleasantly slippery, like hairballs in cats, or terrarium walls for the thwarting of gecko escape. With all these properties and potential uses, the only surprising thing about the pervasively reposted “12 Surprising Uses for Vicks VapoRub” is that human ingenuity has not yet exhausted all its possibilities.

Richardson caught the bug and died during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. It was an ironic fate, since the flu helped sales of his ointment rise from $900,000 to $2.9 million that year; Richardson’s descendants have even claimed the product “saved America from the flu.” Nearly a century hence, 552,000 people have clicked ‘Like’ on its Facebook page. Now owned by Proctor & Gamble, almost everyone has used the substance. When I was little, my mother used it to anoint my ailing throat and chest. My father spooned it into a pot of simmering water, draped a towel over his head, and honked up the fumes. That inhalation method appears now on the Australian Vicks website: “When cold strikes, men revert to little big boys—and the only way to get your Big Strong Hubby back is to lovingly nurse your Man Child with the secret remedy his own mummy used against colds when he was just a wee boy.” But the American website, which does not care about your Man Child, prohibits adding VapoRub to hot water, as it “may cause splattering and result in burns.”

My own extensive use of Vicks will be familiar to anybody gripped by that scene in The Silence of the Lambs, where the investigators rub Vicks under their nostrils to quash the smell of a decomposing body. “That’s what I’ve been needing,” I said while watching that film. Vicks goes on smoothly but follows up with a volatile kick, like an irrigation of the nostrils, a salutary tickle, and a sneeze. It’s so strong that, two minutes after I’ve first applied it, I can’t smell anything at all. That is why, for twenty-three years, Vicks has been my armor of choice against the incursions of the material world. With an overactive nose and a tricky stomach, I need Vicks to protect me against the aromatic stimuli that life throws at me everyday—filthy toilets, diesel fumes, upholstery cleaner, perfume.

Actual forensic pathologists would not be impressed. Outside of movies and TV shows, professionals don’t use Vicks. Some of them rely on their senses of smell as a diagnostic tool, learning to endure odors without being sickened by them. Others say that repeated exposure makes them stop noticing stench altogether. They all like to lord it over wusses like police detectives and med students.

They can keep their willpower, bravado, and desensitization. I’ll take my mintier chemical fix, which requires no practice to make perfect. Nausea is one of the most idiosyncratically subjective experiences a person can have, and overcoming it is a perverse bodily adaptation that blocks our apprehension of danger and toxicity. By suppressing a noxious odor, I also overcome that part of my brain that would try to keep me alive. Nevertheless, vomiting is an experience I prefer to limit, in favor of all the things I can experience while not vomiting.

Paradoxically, while Vicks suppresses my perception of odors, it also makes me stop holding my breath. I breathe even more deeply under its spell, opening my crannies to particles of the offending substances. It’s not the carrion, garbage, or shit molecules circulating in my lungs that sicken me, but my olfactory perception of them. In these terms, self-defense against smell is an illusion, because Vicks does nothing to prevent the permeability between my body and its so-called external environment. “Breathe life in,” the Vicks website exhorts me, and I do: microbes, pollen, skin mites, spit, gnats, fumes, gas leaks, street nuts, farts. I exhale bits of me into the air; I inhale bits of everything else. Even while those things enter, lodge in, or even bind to me, Vicks makes me less aware of the mingling, the breakdown of boundaries—as unaware as I am of the constant multiplying or destruction of my own cells, and as personally involved. I’m huffing Vicks and feeling none of it; I am virtually veneered; I am dissolving and rebuilding myself in the world.

Presented by

Alison Kinney is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in The Hairpin, The Literary Review, and Gastronomica.  

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