Topical Pain Relief for Vegans: Tiger Balm, Icy Hot, Etc.

What are the vegan options for topical pain relief? I recently contacted all the major brands to ask them the source of their ingredients. Whenever the company responses weren’t helpful, I went through the ingredients myself to find out if the products are vegan.

Vegan options for topical pain relief include Tiger Balm, Penetrex, and Real Time Pain Relief. When it comes to Icy Hot, Aspercreme, and Biofreeze, I could not confirm whether they’re vegan or not. Bengay appears to be the least vegan-friendly brand. More details below.

Most of these products contain menthol, so I’ll cover that ingredient, along with many inactive ingredients. And I’ll share the products most likely to be vegan. Even for Bengay and Aspercreme, there are specific products I’m pretty confident are vegan!

Vegan Pain Relief Cream, Gel, and More: An Overview

This was a natural follow-up post for me to make after my deep-dive into vegan pain relievers like ibuprofen and aspirin. What vegan roll-on, patch, and cream options exist for pain relief?

Here are the list of companies I surveyed, listed from most vegan to least vegan:

Click the name of any of those companies to jump to their section. Or just scroll down to browse the details and see which options are available from each company.

Is Menthol Vegan?

Menthol itself is vegan. It is either produced synthetically or taken from freezing the oils of mints, such as peppermint or corn mint. Although it may be included in many non-vegan products, menthol itself is not an animal-derived ingredient.

Menthol is one of the common ingredients you’ll see in topical pain relievers like Bengay, Icy Hot, and Tiger Balm. It’s also present in cigarettes, cough drops, and many other things. Fortunately, its production doesn’t seem to involve animals at all (source).

A Clearly Labeled Vegan Roll-On Pain Relief Option

This was an exciting find because it was the first vegan topical pain reliever I found. And it’s clearly labeled as vegan!

Real Time Pain Relief is a major brand when it comes to roll-on, menthol-based pain relievers. George Foreman is a spokesperson for them.

But other products by Real Time Pain Relief contain “emu oil,” which is not vegan (emus are huge birds, like ostriches). This “Vegan Select” roll-on contains raspberry oil instead.

In addition to menthol, Vegan Select contains tons of natural ingredients like aloe vera and willow bark (the natural source of the active ingredient in aspirin). Check the price on Amazon here.

Is BenGay Vegan?

Bengay is not vegan. The original version contains lanolin, a product of wool-bearing animals. Other Bengay products have “gray area” ingredients like glycerin, which can be plant- or animal-based, but the company won’t reveal which. Bengay is made by Johnson & Johnson, which some vegans boycott due to animal testing.

I recently contacted Johnson & Johnson to ask which ingredients in Bengay, if any, are sourced from animals. This was their response:

“We’re sorry, however, we do not have the information you are seeking. Many ingredients can be derived from a variety of sources and the specific source material of these ingredients may change over time. While these ingredients must consistently meet strict specification requirements, we cannot provide the specific source of the ingredient used in your product.” (April 2020)

So, that was no help at all.

I spent a few minutes looking through ingredient lists for various BenGay products. Most Bengay products contain “gray area” ingredients that may be plant- or animal-based: glycerin, stearic acid, polysorbate 80, and maybe others.

The most clear offending ingredient is lanolin, which is present in Ultra Strength Bengay Cream.

If you want to get a Bengay product, the Vanishing Scent Gel looks most likely vegan. I don’t see any problematic ingredients, based on what I know. Learn more on the Amazon page.

But another issue with Bengay is that it’s owned by Johnson & Johnson, which has a cruel history with animal testing.

As far as which animal tests Johnson & Johnson currently conducts or commissions, I’m not an expert. Here is their official statement on their “humane” animal care standards. It seems they still conduct some animal testing.

In the past, Johnson & Johnson has been a frequent target of groups like PETA that fight animal testing. They once were carrying out “forced swim” tests that were singled out by activists as particularly cruel—but thankfully, those have been stopped.

As a vegan, it’s great if you can stop supporting companies that test on animals. But different vegans have different levels of commitment to this.

Personally, I don’t consistently check every brand of products I use for animal testing—but if I see a brand that is certified “cruelty-free,” I definitely prefer that.

Is Icy Hot Vegan?

No one knows if Icy Hot is fully vegan. Icy Hot products contain various ingredients that may be sourced from animals, but the company will not guarantee whether they are animal-derived or not. However, we do know that Icy Hot is not tested on animals.

IcyHot is made by Chattem, which was acquired by Sanofi-aventis. So you may see references to both companies when researching IcyHot. Anyway, I received this message when I asked whether IcyHot is vegan:

“Icy Hot products are not tested on animals for human use. Due to the numerous suppliers of raw materials, Sanofi cannot guarantee that Icy Hot products do not contain some type of animal origin.” (January 2020)

Looking at the ingredients list for Icy Hot, nothing stands out as a known animal product. I didn’t see any lanolin, which was the most obvious non-vegan ingredient in BenGay.

There are many “gray area” ingredients in Icy Hot products. Since the company isn’t telling us the source of these ingredients, we don’t know for sure if they are vegan.

Realistically, the company may source these “gray area” ingredients from multiple different suppliers. In this case, it is understandable that they don’t consider it worth their time (at this point) to ask each of those sources if their products are animal-derived.

  • Icy Hot No Mess contains glycerin, which can be plant- or animal-based, we don’t know which.
  • Icy Hot Vanishing Scent Gel contains glycerin along with allantoin, which can come from cow urine (but it’s more likely synthetic, based on my understanding).
  • Icy Hot Advanced Cream contains allantoin and glycerin, plus stearic acid, which also can be plant- or animal-based.

Those are just three examples from their product line. As you can see, there are many possibilities for Icy Hot to not be 100% vegan. But it may be. And at least they don’t test on animals. So I would just say Icy Hot is “maybe vegan.”

Is Aspercreme Vegan?

Aspercreme may be vegan, but it’s unknown. Aspercreme products contain several ingredients that may be sourced from animals, but the company will not disclose the source.

Aspercreme is owned by the same company as Icy Hot (Sanofi). So the customer support message I received was actually the same exact sentence as for Icy Hot:

“Due to the numerous suppliers of raw materials, we cannot guarantee that our products don’t contain some type of animal origin.” (April 2020)

And just as with Icy Hot above, Aspercreme contains a bunch of “gray area” ingredients that could be from animals, but we don’t know by reading by the label: glycerin, stearic acid, polysorbate 80, and possibly more.

From a quick look around the list of Aspercreme products, the Dry Spray with Lidocaine (Amazon link) looks like it is very likely vegan. There’s still one ingredient I’m not 100% sure about—caprylic/capric triglyceride—but most sources say it’s usually plant-based.

Is Tiger Balm Vegan?

Tiger Balm is confirmed vegan. Customer support representatives from the company have stated that their products are not tested on animals and do not contain animal-derived ingredients.

I thought the email I got back from Tiger Balm was so funny and cute (but also helpful). They specifically stated that Tiger Balm is “not made with tiger parts.” That was funny because I wasn’t under any impression of tiger parts being used!

But in any case, here was their helpful response:

“Regarding to your question, the answer is ‘YES.’ Tiger Balm is totally vegan. All the Tiger Balm products are not tested on the animals & not made with tiger parts. They are made from ingredients such as menthol, camphor, peppermint oil, clove oil, cajuput oil, and mint oil.” (April 2020)

So add Tiger Balm to the vegan list! Tiger Balm gets great reviews, too, so this is another strong option to consider for topical pain relief as a vegan. Check the current price on Amazon here.

Is Penetrex Vegan?

Penetrex is vegan. I emailed the company to ask if their products contained animal-derived ingredients, and their clear response was that they do not.

“Based on the current ingredients and their sources, Penetrex Cream and Penetrex Roll-on do not contain animal and shellfish derived ingredients. Penetrex is a Gluten-free product and filled on Gluten-free lines.  The Glycerin and Glucosamine in Penetrex are plant-based, specifically corn.” (April 2020)

This was great news and has gotten me more interested in their products! I haven’t actually tried Penetrex before, but it has thousands of great reviews on Amazon, and I like their angle about actually stopping inflammation rather than just masking the pain. Check current price on Amazon here.

Is Biofreeze Vegan?

I was unable to find out whether Biofreeze is vegan. Most Biofreeze products contain some “gray area” ingredients which may be plant- or animal-based, and the company did not respond to my inquiry about the source.

The “gray area” ingredients I found in Biofreeze products are similar to the ones found in other brands: glycerin, polysorbate 60, glyceryl stearate, and possibly others.

I’ll update this post if the company responds. Until then, who knows whether Biofreeze is vegan!

Takeaway

As you can see, there are plenty of for vegan pain relief cream and the like. At the same time, there are many companies lagging behind the curve, unwilling to even reveal the source of their ingredients. (People at the company may not even know in some cases.)

I recommend choosing Tiger Balm, Penetrex, or Real Time Pain Relief’s “Vegan Select.” These products all receive great reviews, and they were nice enough to make clear that their products are vegan—so they deserve our support!

Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey

1. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in 13 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).

2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet—the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.

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