When it comes to our hero products and cure-alls, Filipinos add more than a dash of faith into the mix.
One of the many enduring images I had growing up was that of my mother in a peaceful daze. Whenever I would go inside her room to wake her from a nap, I would always find her in curious straits: On one side, a tiny vial of White Flower would be lying beside her head next to an inhaler. On the other side, by her hands, is a well-used bottle of Efficascent Oil slowly turning the surrounding sheets its distinct, deep green shade. Unseen but definitely present are a few patches of Salonpas around her body, and perched almost acrobatically on the tip of her nose is an open container of Vicks Vapo Rub.
Always, she was a picture of rest, lightly snoring, wrapped embutido-like in one of her comfortable blankets.
Though it might look comical, this recurring memory emphasizes just how our home—like many Filipino households—have leaned on these bottled effects whether they be for little aches and pains or skin complications. It is a cultural trait that transcends generations, somehow marrying medical science and our propensity for anting-anting (talisman or amulet), sometimes on the same level as stereotyped eccentricities (“Don’t sleep when your hair is wet”) or brow-furrowing dogma (“Watching horror movies will invite demons into you!”).
Say, for example, the idea of cure-alls. Just as Nia Vardalos’ big Greek family has learned to trust Windex, many Filipinos have depended on a limited number of products (perhaps due to economics or convenience) to get through almost whatever ails us. Got a cough? Slather Vicks on your chest. Cough has morphed into a full-blown flu? Just put more Vicks.
The comedian Jo Koy’s mother Josie was one such believer. “My mom never took us to the doctor. My mom raised us like we were still in the Philippines,” he joked in his Lights Out Netflix special. “There was one time I thought I had pneumonia, I go ‘Mom, I think I have pneumonia.’ She goes, ‘I’ll put extra Vicks in your body, Joseph. Just rub it everywhere, Joseph. Rub it on the bottom of the foot, then put a sock on the foot. And the Pneumonia will come out of the foot, Joseph,” mentioning a favorite go-to move of Fillipino moms to the howls of the Fil-American crowd.
Believe it or not
My particular anting-anting of choice, though, isn’t Vicks, but Efficascent Oil, which I would whip out whenever my body was feeling a bit off-kilter. The ointment is made up of methyl salicylate, camphor, and menthol, the combination of which feels like a Song of Fire and Ice on the skin.
Growing up, I was taught to massage the oil into my body and knead little painful spots of lamig (cold) that are the cause of my feverish woes. Once those spots are gone, I would then begin to sweat, which would then cool my body. My pentecostal upbringing would make me imagine that I was exorcizing whatever malaise-bearing demon happened upon me as I let the concoction do its magic. I would mouth a silent “begone unclean spirit” believing that the camphor is sending this uncleanest to the abyss from whence it came.
But kidding and Christian theatrics aside, Filipinos have sworn on Efficascent Oil for over 60 years. Launched in 1959, it was the pioneering product of the Wong brothers’ International Pharmaceuticals Inc. Today, their line has expanded to other familiar Filipino brands such as Aceite de Manzanilla, Bronco Rub, Dr. Kauffman’s Sulfur Soap, Omega Painkiller, and a few more variants of Efficascent.
White Flower, on the other hand, beat out Efficascent Oil by a handful of decades, starting out in Penang, Malaysia in 1927. Containing menthol, Eucalyptus, and Wintergreen, the powerful translucent liquid is often rubbed on the temples or sniffed to ward off throbbing headaches or nausea. Launched even earlier in 1918 is another Filipino favorite, Tiger Balm. With different variants being used for anything from muscle aches to stuffy noses to mosquito bites, this analgesic salve is apparently favored by even global stars as Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and the Goop queen herself, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Of course, Filipino hero brands under the health and beauty category are not only relegated for soothing whatever ails the body. We swear by more than a handful of products that address the commercially-popular and wholly non-life threatening desire for “smooth skin,” for example. These include Camay Soap, Pond’s Cold Cream, and Sebo de Macho.
Like with any talisman or amulet, it is sometimes belief that powers it much more than the actual object. While the science might not always follow—no, Vicks won’t probably cure pneumonia and COVID won’t just disappear just because you slathered on a year’s worth of Efficascent—there is comfort and, as my blanket-swaddled mother has come to discover, peace in believing that little miracles can be bottled.
And that is practically part of our DNA. After all, there are few things more Filipino than having a little blind faith lead the way.