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.

Vicks helps me endure the assimilation of these scent particles for much longer than I could do without it. It is a blessing in a New York summer, after the flu season has long since passed. I can venture into the street in August to bag the what-was-that-animal corpse that the city has failed to remove all week; I can clean a bathroom spattered with my own Norovirus-induced vomit; I can sit through a movie beside a person drenched in Obsession. By numbing one sense, Vicks sends my other four slipping and sliding into intimacy with the world.

And in the winter and allergy seasons, I slather on the Vicks so that I can breathe at all, although it’s possible that Vicks works only on the surface of this perception, too. Following up on reports of children experiencing worse congestion after treatment with VapoRub, in 2009 Bruce Rubin of the Department of Pediatrics at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine published a study concluding that sniffing VapoRub caused airway inflammation in ferrets. Some have contested the study’s methodology, results, and applicability to humans, but the matter might be beside the point: from reading the VapoRub packaging, I know that the directions forbid application on or under the nose and make no reference to congestion, only to the product’s suitability for soothing muscle aches and suppressing coughs. (A 1994 study found that camphor and menthol had an antitussive effect on conscious guinea pigs. This study sounds adorable, until one reads that the guinea pigs’ coughing was induced with aerosolized citric acid.) Perhaps because I love guinea pigs more than I love ferrets, I haven’t stopped believing in Vicks’ power to decongest me. The less I can breathe, the more Vicks I slap onto my face, which, if Rubin is wrong, means I’m breathing in more allergens and germs, or, if Rubin is right, means I’m making my congestion worse.

However, Rubin himself has said, “Vicks is not bad. It does what it is meant to do: It gives the brain the sensation of relief of stuffiness, menthol triggers specific cold receptors in the nose and bronchial tubes. That is why it has been added to cigarettes called things like Kool. If you can’t sleep because you are so congested, and put it on your chest, it makes you feel better. It doesn’t open things up—but for most kids, it doesn’t plug things up, either.” And as he told Scientific American, Vicks “doesn’t improve air flow, but it does give that same sensation of increased air flow.”

Truth! Amidst a wintry night’s virus-addled insomnia, when I can’t sleep for the ratchety, bubbling sound of my own breathing, I take comfort in my little blue plastic tub. I apply a greasy smudge to my upper lip—it stings a little, where my nostrils are raw from blowing—and gasp an Arctic breeze straight to the brain. Reassured that I won’t suffocate in the night, I relax enough to fall asleep. The soothing perception exists wholly apart from any pulmonary reality. Again, Vicks alters my access to the world—for the worse, perhaps, in terms of oxygen absorption, for the better in terms of pain relief and rest—and transforms my conscious experience of it. While part of my brain keeps laboring to keep me breathing, and my cells suffer, Vicks numbs my brain to the experience of the struggle. Yet I really do awake more refreshed. Vicks reshapes my awareness like a kind of global climate change-denying therapy: Politically, it offends me; practically, it helps me sleep at night. The simile ends there.

As an agent of deterrence, enhancement, and change for beliefs, emotions, and environments, applied topically and correctly, Vicks changes what I think I am, and what my person is composed of, regardless of any consciousness on my part. I want to keep myself open to oxygen but impervious to germs and the sludge outside sidewalk fish markets. I don’t want to be food for ticks, mosquitoes, and fungi. I don’t want the responsibility for palomino amorousness. Or maybe I do! Vicks plays tricks with my desires and material realities; it whispers, “Everything will be okay,” while gumming up my defenses. I can embalm or medicate myself with Vicks and be a little more dead and a little more alive—or at least feel as though I am.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things