Yep, I am giving my age away on this one! My mom didn’t have much tolerance for illness – if you were sick or hurt yourself she would whip out the mercurochrome, gentian violet (which went onto mouth ulcers, leaving my whole mouth bright purple), calamine lotion or Permanganate of Potash. Other weapons in her arsenal against illness were Rooibos tea (for spots, stomach aches and headaches), and laxatives (for ‘cleaning you out’ once a week which appears to have been a common belief way back when – she blamed everything from a headache to spots on constipation). She also believed that bathing more than once a week washed away all your bodily oils and that long hair sapped all your strength so me wanting long hair and daily baths proved to be a battle of wills!
This product was marketed for use on minor cuts and scrapes during the 20th century. It typically had a reddish to brown color which would stain the skin when it was applied, and if it was suspended in alcohol, it might sting slightly. Mercurochrome™ was recommended for use on people of all ages, and many people in the middle of the 20th century had a bottle in the bathroom cabinet for household use.
There are two issues with Mercurochrome™ and other merbromin products. The first is that they contain mercury, a metal which is known to be poisonous. Although no one has definitively linked Mercurochrome™ to mercury poisoning, presumably because the metal is only present in trace amounts, many people prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to mercury. The FDA originally grandfathered the drug in, and later decided that it should be banned until additional research could prove that it was safe for use.
Gentian Violet has antibacterial, antifungal, and anthelmintic properties and was formerly important as a topical antiseptic. The medical use of the dye has been largely superseded by more modern drugs, although it is still listed by the World Health Organization. The name refers to its colour, being like that of the petals of a gentian flower; it is not made from gentians or from violets.
Most people who have encountered mercury have done so after breaking a mercury thermometer. And many of us who saw the liquid balls of mercury scatter across a floor or countertop considered the element the most beautiful on the periodic table. Those days have passed. Since 2001,20 US states have banned mercury “fever thermometers” for medical use, and regulations tighten every year. Many pharmacies now carry only sterile digital replacements or the less accurate ones with red glop in the bulb.
Permanganate of Potash
A poisonous salt that forms dark purple crystals and is purple-red when dissolved in water; used as an oxidizing and bleaching agent and as a disinfectant and antiseptic. Also called Condy’s crystals.
Calamine lotion is rubbed onto the skin to treat such conditions as chicken pox, poison oak, poison sumac, sunburn, and insect bites. Its purpose is only to treat the itching and some of the symptoms of these conditions however, not the underlying conditions themselves.