The mint family of plants is a group of very powerful herbs that have oil producing glands. These hair-like oil glands are located on the surfaces of the undersides of the leaves and on the stems — and are the plant parts that are used for their powerful effects and for flavorings, especially at your general dentist’s office.

Spearmint and its offspring peppermint are two forms of mint which have been used since biblical times. The main mint component in these is in the form of the refreshing essential oil menthol, which has become one of the most widely used plant products and is commonly found in mouth wash, cough drops, tooth paste, pain ointments and rubbing creams, cigarettes, candy, and liquors.

Why is menthol so frequently used? At low concentrations, menthol slows down the response reactions of our body’s cold receptors. It makes the mouth feel cool and makes a cool drink feel icy cold. In a larger dose, menthol can work like an anesthetic by making the mouth feel “frozen.” Sometimes menthol can fire things up as an irritant like strong mustard.

There are also other herbs in the mint family notable for this discussion, most of which were in use in Greek and Roman times. The name of basil — from the Greek word basilikon which translates as “royal,” and the Latin word basiliscus which refers to a dragon — suggests that the plant’s use in classical times was linked to a charm against a fire breathing dragon. Rosemary’s Latin name means “sea dew” and in Roman times, it was found by the sea and was considered to be medicinal. The underside of rosemary’s needle-like leaves are covered by oil hairs which make them look white. Marjoram has both sweet and more common forms, and wild marjoram is usually sold as oregano. Oregano comes from Europe, and its name from Greek means “mountain joy” or “mountain brightness.” This should not be confused with the other version of oregano which comes from the Verbena family — a stronger flavored plant native to Mexico. Thyme and summer and winter savory are also derivatives of the mint family. All these flavorings were popular with Romans for meat dishes; Romans and Greeks also used it as a fumigant and as an antiseptic. Thyme has been used since the 16th century in mouth washes and cure-all ointments as a disinfectant. Today thyme is considered essential for many current medicinal treatments. For example, it has been shown to be active against salmonella and staphylococcus bacteria.

Now you can sit back in your dentist’s office and enjoy your mint flavored toothpaste knowing that it’s had a long journey, and will help you feel fresh and relaxed.