A staple for many cold sufferers since the early 1900s, Vicks VapoRub is still a popular choice to relieve a cough or stuffy head. Longevity doesn't equal complete safety, however, and Vicks VapoRub is not without its warnings and limits.
Regular Vicks VapoRub contains the following active ingredients: camphor - 4.8 percent; eucalyptus oil - 1.2 percent; menthol - 2.6 percent. Inactive ingredients include cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, special petrolatum, thymol and turpentine oil.
Vicks VapoRub has long been touted as "a topical medicine that relieves your cough." The company directs the user to "[r]ub a thick layer on chest and throat or rub on sore, aching muscles."
Other anecdotal uses include rubbing on feet to help with coughing or rubbing on toenails to combat fungus, but neither of these uses is supported by scientific research or Procter and Gamble, the company that owns Vicks. Thymol, one of the inactive ingredients in Vicks VapoRub, does contain properties to help combat fungus, but it has not been scientifically proven that Vicks VapoRub will do the same.
In January 2009, "Scientific American" warned about the use of Vicks VapoRub for children 2 and under. This warning is also on the Vicks VapoRub label.
While there is no scientific evidence that Vicks VapoRub is addictive, especially when used as directed, "Organic Facts" reports that camphor, one of Vicks VapoRub's active ingredients, "has narcotic effects as it temporarily desensitizes the nerves and relaxes brain. It can also make brain lose control over limbs if taken in excess. The smell of camphor oil is also addictive. People have been seen to develop strong addiction of smelling camphor oil or consuming it."
In a January 2010 interview with NPR, Jonathan Foulds, the director of the Tobacco Dependence Program at the University of Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey's School of Public Health, commented on how menthol, another active ingredient in Vicks VapoRub, has been found to make smoking cessation more difficult and addiction to cigarettes seemingly easier than with non-mentholated cigarettes, but there's no research linking menthol to an addiction to Vick's VapoRub.
When used as directed and not ingested or placed in or around the nostrils, there is no scientific evidence that Vicks VapoRub is addictive.