The Top Nine Topical Sports Creams and Sprays, an Evaluation.

Over the course of many beer league games as a 40+ year old player, I have had many aches and pains. Most muscle soreness that I have had to work with has been managed using topical ointments, sprays and creams. The level of soreness at times has lead me on a mission to find out the most effective ones in terms of intensity and therapeutic impact.

Social CBD Extra Strength is the most effective, intense and therapeutic sports analgesic that I have come across. It presents an optimal level of therapeutic gain at an intensity that does not otherwise cause discomfort, burning, or extreme freezing.

I have analyzed many sports ointment treatments but I have highlighted some well known and some relative newcomers in these charts. These range in strength from over the counter Menthol and CBD treatments all the way through Lidocaine products. These are subjective and anecdotal observations based on how effective they were at giving me pain relief from the bumps, bruises and sorness of playing ice hockey.. Of course, your mileage may vary, but these are some thoughts on the contents and effectiveness of these treatments.

Biofreeze Spray (Regular – Green Can)

Biofreeze is one of the most popular names in topical pain relief. It’s formulation consists of primarily of Menthol (10.5%) and Arnica. I applied it on my lower back to relieve some minor back pain after a high intensity skate with players that were well above my skill level. I consider this to be the baseline of my research and was both comfortable and therapeutic. While it worked very well to relieve symptoms, the overall effectiveness was limited to about an hour. This was adequate time for other pain remedies such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen to take effect and provide longer lasting relief.

While effective, the decay rate of the therapeutic effects was dramatic after 40 minutes. I could still feel some of the effects for up to about 2.5 hours, but the intensity passed after 60 minutes and was an afterthought after 90 minutes. That said, even after three hours, I would feel a little bit even though there was no real therapeutic effect and very little intensity.

IcyHot Original Spray

IcyHot is more economical. While it is listed at or below the retail price of other comparable products, it providers a higher percentage of Menthol. Coming in at 16%, it is the highest concentrate of menthol of any reviewed product. However, it does not include any other ingredients such as Arnica or Lidocaine.

IcyHot Original Dry Spray

Even though IcyHot Original was listed at 16% Menthol, the intensity of it did not seem to match what I had anticipated. Given that Biofreeze is 10.5% Menthol, I expected at least something with an equivalent or higher intensity. In fact, I conducted two experiments with this to be sure I applied it the same as the other spray products (on my back).

I am not sure if the lack of intensity is due to a lack of some other inactive ingredient that improves its absorption, but for whatever reason, the intensity just didn’t seem to take in my experience.

In short IcyHot Original is mediocre. I had higher hopes based on the amount of Menthol but overall, this product failed to deliver. While it was not bad given its extremely competitive price point, this would not be the first option I went for when given the choice of others on a store shelf.

IcyHot MAX Lidocaine Spray

Of all the items I tested, this was far and away the least effective. While I did notice some effects early on, they were not sufficient to reduce my discomfort by much and after roughly 45 minutes, I was actually having to limit my activity due to soreness that I experienced before I applied it. This further emphasizes that Lidocaine medication either isn’t as good as it is claimed to be, or really isn’t designed for muscular pain.

It would be interesting to see how this reacted on skin irritation such as mild blisters or friction-based or burn (suburn?) discomfort, but for muscular pain, I have found Lidocaine medications to be useless.

Biofreeze Professional Spray (White Can)

While researching this article, I had read a lot of information about Biofreeze and the differences between the Professional and the regular Biofreeze. From an ingredient stand point, I have compared the two products in the spray variety and what I have found is:

  • Both have the same amount of the active ingredient, Menthol, at 10.5%
  • The list of ingredients for the inactive ingredients are identical for both product and the ingredients are listed in the same order.

So enough said, right? They’re the same product. Not so fast. While the aerosol products do, in fact, seem to be the same, the gels and rubs have different concentrations of Menthol and also boast differences in terms of texture and ease of application.

I have used the regular Biofreeze Gel and have found it difficult to apply because it does not adhere when it comes out of the tube easily. Whether or not the professional gel is different is not known to me as I have not, as of this writing, tried it.

If you look at the intensity/therapy graph I have provided, you will see that the products are nearly identical in their attack and decay patterns of effectiveness. I have opted to use aerosol sprays when possible in order to get a better application on the lower back. As these are tested I will, of course, follow up with more data.

Social CBD Muscle Rub

I have always been a skeptic of the benefits of CBD. The hype always left me feeling timid toward CBD products in general. I have tried CBD drops before and didn’t really notice much of a benefit from them. Granted I have not spent a lot of time or tried different formulations given the relatively high cost of CBD products, but I wanted to say up front that I hesitated to even review them based on my own biases.

However, I am putting them aside to run CBD ointments up against other established products so a comparison from an anecdotal standpoint can be made.

Social CBD is a fairly popular and recommended brand for muscle rub creams. I bought my first of this at the Vitamin Shop and it provided the heat and pain relief that I was looking for so the brand stuck in my head.

The standard rub contains 250mg of CBD per 3 ounce tube (16.6mg per use).

The standard product itself holds its own over its more mainstream competition. The intensity was good and put it on par with Neptune Ice and Icy Hot Original. The biggest drawback was that the effects didn’t seem tone as long lasting as the intensity dissipated. Many of these treatments have substantial decay rates, but typically plateau at a certain level. Social CBD seem to trail off and then become unnoticeable pretty quickly after the decay of the intensity.

Overall, I would still recommend this product. It is pricy as far as treatment goes, but is more natural than some of the other products and is a comfortable intensity and a respectable duration of roughly 90-100 minutes.

Social CBD Extra Strength Relief and Recovery Cream

I discovered an extra strength variant of Social CBD in a CVS store and thought it would make for a great comparison with the tube of standard strength that I already had.

The Extra strength version of the standard Social CBD Muscle Rub reports to contain 1200mg of CBD per tube (40mg per use based on a 1/10th ounce dose) – roughly 250% stronger than the standard Social CBD Muscle Rub.

This product is impressive. It has a very good and intense heat from the onset but never gets to uncomfortable levels in terms of burning. What was the most surprising is that the high intensity lasted for a longer period of time and provided prolonged comfort from soreness. In fact, the intensity was still active up until right around the two hour mark. Even as the intensity wears off, there is a numbing sensation which continues to provide pain relief even as the heat declines.

In addition to CBD, this product also contains Arnica which I have also had positive experiences with as a stand alone product outside this experiment as well as Menthol for providing the heat. It does not state how much Menthol or Arnica are provided.

How much of this is owed to the CBD Hemp Extract? There have been no governmental evaluations of this product against others. But from my experience I can say that this product stacks up very well against other products such as Biofreeze and Ben Gay and is made from more natural ingredients (Menthol/Arnica/CBD) than some of its competitors.

Aspercreme Lidocaine Cream

If you are looking for a natural product, then this is not the one for you. In looking over the ingredients list for this, I recognized almost none of them from some of the other products I have reviewed in this article. However since this isn’t an article on ingredients, I’ll leave that where it is and get to the experience.

The intensity and therapeutic effects of Aspercreme Lidocaine comes from the numbing sensation. Because there is no Menthol, there is no heat/cooling sensation. The numbing sensation is more skin-deep and doesn’t really have any effect for deep muscle aches and pains. This almost seems like it would be better suited for joint or nerve pain closer to the skin than muscle pains.

If your muscles are fatigued, it really doesn’t seem to do a lot for that. As such, I would not recommend it as an adequate pre-game cream either.

Neptune Ice

spotted this product while researching this and was drawn to its list of ingredients. It has a more diverse set than many of its competitors including Dimethicone and Camphor with the standard Lidocaine and Menthol. Interestingly, it has a very low (1%) concentration of Menthol but has the standard non-prescription strength Lidocaine (4%).

The product itself comes in a gel form but has a “hands-free” foam-tip applicator designed to making applying the product easier. I found this annoying and made applying the product more uneven and more difficult because you almost had to apply the product to the applicator before getting any on you. My first attempt using Neptune Ice was unsuccessful, so for the one I am using in this review, I did not use the foam-tip applicator.

As for my experience, I was a bit disappointed. I’ll start with that it doesn’t smell all that great if that is a concern. It attacks pretty well for a lower Menthol cream and definitely feels more cool than hot. This is more middle of the road between biofreeze and IcyHot. Definitely below Ben Gay and Biofreeze Comfortable and not too intense. Even though it has lidocaine in it (4%) the numbing effects did not seem all that strong to me.

Of all the products evaluated for this article, it has the shortest duration. After 90 minutes it felt as if I hadn’t used anything and was even still a little sore from my skate – so I supplemented it with a different product for continued relief.

Bengay Ultra Cream

My memories of Bengay are a mixed bag. When I was growing and my knees had a lot of growing pains, my parents would use Bengay to help with the discomfort of hurting knees. While it was always very effective and providing topical heat, it also has the unfortunate habit of spreading out. One time when I was about 8, I applied it on my thighs after a bath and…. Well it migrated north of that area. Let’s just say the next hour or so was a whole lot of UN-FUN.

Now that I am older and have learned significant lessons from that experience (you only need to learn it once too, I must say that even now this stuff does not disappoint. It does have a very high attack rate on application but never quite gets to the level of being uncomfortable.

As the burn wears off there is more of a sensation of numbing afterward that helps the therapeutic effect. Burn also doesn’t drop off as dramatically as some others and is has the longest active heat effect – lasting almost three hours.

The numbing is more skin deep than deep in the muscle and I would equate it to what I would expect of Lidocaine, but there is no Lidocaine in Bengay.


I will be using Social CBD Extra Strength as my go-to moving forward. Over time I will evaluate other products as they are released and as they are, I will update my experience here accordingly. For now I recommend Social CBD Extra Strength. Which is surprising to me even as I sit here and write it.

Lidocaine-based ointments proved to be the least effective especially when they were not coupled with other ingredients such as Menthol or Arnica. On its own, it did not seem to be particularly effective. The most effective ones had either the most natural ingredients (Social CBD) or the most unnatural. The mixed ones had… well, mixed results.

The Methodology

I have measured the effective of these treatments in terms of two subjective axis’ over two measurable. Keep in mind, these things are very subjective so your mileage may vary. This is very anecdotal and not scientific – so there is that.

The first measurable is intensity. Intensity is the impact this has on sensation. This could be in the form of mild impact (low heat or cold) or hyper impact (extreme heat or cold). This is also a measure of numbness. While numbness is less impactful from a sensation point of view, it is still measured.

Typically, the numbness of medications with lidocaine in them will increase as the intensity decreases. Generally speaking, an item with a more gradual decrease in impact is due to numbness.

In short, these are designed to measure the comfort level of the product over time. A higher impact means more extreme sensations. Anything over a 10 in this regard should be considered “uncomfortable”. Anything below a 2 should be considered ineffective.

The second measurable is therapeutic impact. This is an observation of how comforting the medication is and how well it remedies the soreness and allows for normal function that might otherwise be impaired by pain or soreness. I emphasize that this is subjective and based on my perceptions.

Both rankings should be viewed in comparative terms. In short – an item that has an 8 therapeutic rating at a certain time and another that has a 10 at the same time should be considered to be a comparison of one against another. In that the 10 is more effective than an 8. It is subjective, but can provide guidance on overall effectiveness in terms of comparison.

Michael Bagnall

I have been playing and participating in recreational ice hockey activities for the last 12 years. A late bloomer, I started at 38 and have played in leagues, tournaments and pick up (shinny) as well as multiple skills clinics and classes.

Recent Posts