Methyl salicylate (oil of wintergreen or wintergreen oil) is an organic ester naturally produced by many species of plants, particularly wintergreens. It is also synthetically produced, used as a fragrance, in foods and beverages, and in liniments.
all species of the genus Spiraea in the family Rosaceae, also called the meadowsweets.
This compound is produced most likely as an anti-herbivore defense. If the plant is infected with herbivorous insects, the release of methyl salicylate may function as an aid in the recruitment of beneficial insects to kill the herbivorous insects. Aside from its toxicity, methyl salicylate may also be used by plants as a pheromone to warn other plants of pathogens such as tobacco mosaic virus.
in high concentrations as a rubefacient and analgesic in deep heating liniments (such as Bengay) to treat joint and muscular pain. Randomised double blind trial reviews report evidence of its effectiveness that is weak, but stronger for acute pain than chronic pain, and that effectiveness may be due entirely to counter-irritation. However, in the body it metabolizes into salicylates, including salicylic acid, a known NSAID.
in low concentrations (0.04% and under) as a flavoring agent in chewing gum and mints. When mixed with sugar and dried it is a potentially entertaining source of triboluminescence, gaining the tendency to build up electrical charge when crushed or rubbed. This effect can be observed by crushing wintergreen Life Savers in a dark room.
as a bait for attracting male orchid bees for study, which apparently gather the chemical to synthesize pheromones.
clear plant or animal tissue samples of color, and as such is useful for microscopy and immunohistochemistry when excess pigments obscure structures or block light in the tissue being examined. This clearing generally only takes a few minutes, but the tissue must first be dehydrated in alcohol.
as a transfer agent, to produce a manual copy of an image on a surface.
restoring (at least temporarily) the elastomeric properties of old rubber rollers, especially in printers.
Safety and toxicity
In pure form, methyl salicylate is toxic, especially when taken internally. A single teaspoon (5ml) of methyl salicylate contains 7g of salicylate, which is equivalent to more than twenty-three 300 mg aspirin tablets. The lowest published lethal dose is 101 mg/kg body weight in adult humans, (or 7.07 grams for a 70-kg adult). It has proven fatal to small children in doses as small as 4 ml. A seventeen-year-old cross-country runner at Notre Dame Academy on Staten Island, died in April 2007, after her body absorbed methyl salicylate through excessive use of topical muscle-pain relief products.
Most instances of human toxicity due to methyl salicylate are a result of over-application of topical analgesics, especially involving children. Some people have intentionally ingested large amounts of oil of wintergreen. Salicylate, the major metabolite of methyl salicylate, may be quantitated in blood, plasma or serum to confirm a diagnosis of poisoning in hospitalized patients or to assist in an autopsy.
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