These Are the Best Muscle Rubs That *Effectively* Relieve Soreness, According to Physical Therapists
Sore muscles, whether from a hard workout or sleeping weirdly, can be an unwelcome distraction when you’re just trying to go about your regular day. While it won’t magically heal an injury or speed up recovery, a muscle rub or balm may be a good solution to at least help alleviate soreness and pain temporarily. These rubs—which can come as a gel, cream, or ointment—get absorbed through the skin and can help soothe aching muscles or joints. They often contain naturally derived ingredients like camphor, menthol, and arnica (more on those below), which aim to decrease inflammation and stimulate the skin to distract your brain from the feeling of discomfort.
To learn more about what to look for in a rub, we spoke to a few fitness and physical therapy pros for their tips and recommendations of the best muscle rubs around. Whether you’re experiencing back pain, post-workout soreness, or just general aches (ugh, we’re sorry!), one of the products on this list can help you find some relief.
7 of the best muscle rubs, at a glance:
Best gel: Biofreeze, Menthol Pain-Relieving Gel, $15
Best ointment: Tiger Balm, Pain Relieving Ointment, $12
Best with natural ingredients: The Feel Good Lab, Natural Pain Cream, $25
Best organic: Dr. Bronner’s, Organic Magic Balm, $15
Best cream: Ted’s, Pain Cream, $22
Best topical NSAID: Voltaren, Arthritis Pain Gel, $10
Best with CBD: Cornbread Hemp, Full-Spectrum Hemp Balm, $5
Ingredients to look for in a muscle rub
Menthol, arnica, and camphor—these are three of the top ingredients to look for in a relaxing rub says Shikha Sharma, PT, DPT, clinical director of Excel Sports and Physical Therapy in St. Louis, Missouri.
“These ingredients create a pleasant diversion with their cooling sensations from pain without irritating the skin,” she says. Lara Heimann, a physical therapist and creator of the LYT Yoga Method, adds that ingredients like CBD or THC can be more helpful in treating chronic pain (ingredients like menthol only temporarily block pain signals from traveling to the brain.) Muscle balms that contain topical pain relievers like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also soothe muscles if you’re injured or can’t take oral anti-inflammatories (although they’re not for everyone, so be sure to speak with your doctor first and monitor your NSAID use).
Where possible, avoid dyes, preservatives, or parabens, and look for research-backed approval, says Heimann. “Synthetic-free and organic [ingredients] will be the best as you are applying directly onto the skin to be absorbed,” she adds. And most importantly, be sure to take it easy. Sharma notes that while using muscle balms, your perceived tolerance to pain and range of motion may appear to improve. “Be careful when exercising or engaging in any strenuous activity, as you don’t want to push yourself past your actual ability or range of motion,” she says.
The 7 best muscle rubs for instant relief
Key ingredients: Menthol, arnica montana, camphor, aloe, lemon balm
Biofreeze is free of parabens and uses a four-percent menthol formula that provides fast and long-lasting pain relief by blocking the pain signal to your brain. The gel is non-greasy, and menthol gives it a cooling effect to help reduce inflammation, says Kyle Risley, a health expert and CEO of Lift Vault. It also comes in roll-on and spray versions to make application even easier and mess-free.
Size: 4 oz.
Available at most drugstores
Available in different formats (roll-on, stick, etc.)
Key ingredients: camphor, menthol, cassia oil, cajuput oil, clove oil
Tiger Balm is a classic—it’s been around for 100 years, and if you’ve ever had a jar in your cabinet, you’ll recognize its distinct smell. The main ingredients are camphor and menthol, which provide warmth that helps open up blood vessels and increase circulation to loosen up any stiff joints. The compact size and non-messy application makes this pick great to throw in your gym bag and use on the go.
Size: 1.7 oz.
Doesn’t stain clothes
Made with natural ingredients.
Key ingredients: arnica, aloe, turmeric, menthol, vitamin E
This pain cream is made with a slew of natural ingredients like arnica, turmeric, aloe vera, calendula, menthol, and more. The formula doesn’t contain any toxic ingredients or artificial fragrances, and it’s FDA-registered to relieve arthritis and backache pain. And, unlike the two picks above, this cream doesn’t leave behind a strong smell. It’s also a smooth, non-greasy formula that will leave your skin feeling soft thanks to the addition of glycerin, sunflower oil, and vitamin E.
Size: 3.4 oz.
Formula includes 30 botanical ingredients
FDA-approved for certain symptoms
Key ingredients: arnica, camphor, menthol, avocado oil, olive oil, coconut oil
Made with USDA- and Fair Trade-certified ingredients, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Balm can be used on sore muscles as well as dry skin. It has arnica, menthol, and camphor oils to provide cooling relief, beeswax, and olive, avocado, and coconut oils to nourish. The brand also makes a version of this balm that excludes the arnica and menthol for a scent-free moisturizer, if that’s more your speed.
Size: 2 oz.
USDA- and Fair-Trade certified
Includes natural, moisturizing ingredients to soften skin
Available in most drugstores
Scent-free option doesn’t provide pain-relieving effects
Key ingredients: resveratrol, methyl salycilate (wintergreen oil), arnica, glycerin, Boswellia serrata extract
Ted’s Pain Cream was developed by a neuroscientist and can be used on muscles or migraines alike. It’s a favorite of Heimann because, in addition to menthol from wintergreen oil, it also includes resveratrol, which is found in grape skins and other plants, and has been shown to target pain-sensing nerves. The combo of the two aim to provide a more long-lasting remedy. Plus, the addition of glycerin and water helps this formula go on smoothly and adds a touch of moisture.
Size: 3 oz.
Resveratrol and wintergreen work together to relieve pain
Available in different formats (roll-on, etc.)
Key ingredients: NSAID (diclofenac sodium), mineral oil, fragrance
Voltaren cream goes beyond skin deep; it’s an NSAID medicine and absorbs into your muscles to help reduce inflammation and provide pain relief. It penetrates quickly, has no odor, and will last up to 12 hours, adds David Brendan, an ISSA/IFPA certified fitness trainer. It’s marketed as an arthritis cream but can be used on muscles, too.
Since it’s an NSAID, you should speak with your doctor before using Voltaren gel, especially if you have heart complications, a chronic condition, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Size: 1.7 oz.
Made with NSAID
Works quickly and lasts long
Requires doctor sign-off if you have a heart issue, chronic condition, or are pregnant
Ingredients may irritate skin for some people
Key ingredients: hemp CBD extract, arnica, shea butter, eucalyptus oil, peppermint oil
While research is still in the early stages, there is promising data out there regarding hemp-derived CBD as an anti-inflammatory aid. This balm from Cornbread Hemp features USDA Organic full-spectrum hemp flower extract, as well as arnica and peppermint. It comes in a tube, which makes it easy to apply on tough-to-reach spots (like your upper back or shoulders), and the non-greasy formula isn’t too overpowering in the scent department. Plus, Cornbread Hemp puts all of their products through rigorous third-party testing to confirm safety and accuracy—that’s extra important when shopping for a CBD product because they’re not yet regulated by the FDA.
Size: 2.4 oz.
USDA-certified, organic ingredients
Third-party tested for accuracy and safety
Easy to apply
Includes trace amounts of THC (may not be a con for some!)
What to consider
Some people are down with the minty menthol or camphor scent of most muscle rubs—it smells like it’s working! But if you’re scent-averse, you might want to opt for a less-strong or unscented option.
Consistency and packaging
Do you prefer a waxy balm, a slippery gel, or a moisturizing cream? Each consistency feels different on the skin. Additionally, the packaging may play a role in whether or not you take your muscle rub on the go (for example, a stick or balm might be better for the gym bag, whereas a tub or jar can be stored easily in your medicine cabinet.)
The skin is our bodies’ largest organ, so the ingredients you apply matter. While all of the products on our list are safe for topical use, some go the extra mile by prioritizing organic and naturally derived ingredients so you can feel more confident in what you’re putting on your bod. This includes:
FDA approval: Ensure that the muscle rub is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This indicates that the product meets certain safety and efficacy standards.
Third-party testing: Choose muscle rubs that undergo third-party testing by reputable laboratories. This ensures that the product’s ingredients are accurately labeled, and it meets safety and potency standards
Organic and cruelty-free standards: If you prefer natural and organic products, look for muscle rubs that are certified organic by organizations such as the USDA. This ensures that the ingredients are grown and processed without synthetic chemicals. Similarly, consider products that are certified cruelty-free by organizations like Leaping Bunny or PETA. This certification indicates that the product and its ingredients were not tested on animals.
The muscle rubs on our list range from $10 to $55, so your budget is certainly something to keep in mind while shopping. Products that use organic, natural ingredients tend to be a little pricier (they often cost more to make and certify). But, assuming you like the product, some brands offer subscription discounts, which are worth checking out.
Do muscle rubs really work?
Whether a muscle rub works or not will depend on the product’s specific ingredients. If you’re using a topical NSAID, there’s a high chance you’ll experience anti-inflammatory benefits (as you would with an ingested NSAID). However, research suggests that many topical pain creams can often provide a placebo effect—this is particularly true for formulas that include menthol or camphor, which cool or warm the skin and, as a result, distract the user from the pain.
Does that mean they don’t work? It depends on how you look at it. Remember: while they might feel good on sore muscles after a workout, muscle rubs aren’t intended to cure or relieve pain long-term.
Where to not put muscle rub?
Muscle rubs are intended for external use only and shouldn’t be applied to any broken skin or cuts. If you tend to have sensitive skin, it’s best to test the rub on a small patch on your wrist before applying it to the area where you’re experiencing pain. If you’re using topical NSAID, it’s best to ask your doctor before applying to ensure you’re cleared for use.
Can you use too much muscle rub?
To understand dosing, always read the instructions on the packaging for the muscle rub you choose. Some products contain simple ingredients that you really can’t go overboard with. Others have more complex formulas containing CBD or NSAIDs—these in particular should be used by the brand’s instructions (and perhaps even per your doctor’s orders). If you notice any adverse effects (such as itchiness, redness, or drowsiness) stop using the rub immediately.