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Is Drawing Salve Safe to Use?

Harriette Halepis
Harriette Halepis

Drawing salve looks a lot like tar, and it is used to relieve topical skin ailments. Whether or not it is safe is still debated, but this ointment is not linked to any serious damage if it is used topically. Some natural companies claim that the salve is safe for internal use, though this is not the case.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, this type of salve was considered to be a cure-all for various ailments. During this time, many believed that physical afflictions were a spiritual matter. Taking advantage of the public's belief in religion, medical "magicians" created salves that could "draw out" any evil spiritual affliction. Black drawing salve was one of the most popular forms created, and it is still widely used around the globe.

Fingertip with a dab of drawing salve.
Fingertip with a dab of drawing salve.

Black drawing salves, not to be confused with black salve, contain ichthyol or ichthammol, which are types of ammonium bituminosulfonate derived from oil shale. Other ingredients may include echinacea, arnica montana, bergamot oil, calendula, and comfrey oil depending upon the brand. Beeswax and vitamin E are also often included in this mixture.

This type of salve differs drastically from black salve, which is made from the bloodroot herb. Black salve was once the only form of skin cancer treatment available, and it can cause a great amount of skin damage. It causes skin tissue to die, since it literally burns. This is not the salve that is used to treat minor skin irritations.

Drawing salve may help treat the symptoms associated with a bee sting.
Drawing salve may help treat the symptoms associated with a bee sting.

Any kind of ointment should only be used topically unless otherwise directed by a medical professional. Anyone considering using drawing salve should make sure to speak with a healthcare provider before doing so, since this type of salve can easily burn the skin. With the careful monitoring, a physician or other medical professional will be able to tell a patient when to stop using this ointment.

If used topically, salve ointment is not linked to any serious damage.
If used topically, salve ointment is not linked to any serious damage.

This type of salve should only be used to relieve pain caused by bee stings, splinters, boils, thorns, and spider bites. On occasion, an allergic reaction to black drawing salve may occur. If it has been used without the watchful eye of a physician, and a rash occurs, medical attention should be immediately sought.

When applying this ointment, users be careful to keep it away from any clothing, since it can cause permanent stains. While this type of salve can be purchase on the Internet, it is recommended that patients purchase it from a health store. This way, they can be sure that they are buying the right kind of salve, since there are many similar ointments on the market.

How Does Drawing Salve Work?

Supporters of drawing salve claim that it can help “draw out” splinters, glass shards and other small objects embedded in the skin. There hasn’t been enough scientific research done to confirm these effects, but some people swear by it.

Many of the ingredients in drawing salves, such as ichthammol, bergamot oil, beeswax and vitamin E, have moisturizing and antibacterial properties. These ingredients can help hydrate, nourish and cleanse the skin, in addition to alleviating itching and unclogging pores.

It’s possible that this combination of ingredients in skin salves may draw out foreign objects by softening the skin. With softer skin, it may be easier for splinters and stingers to slide out on their own.

In the case of boils, ichthyol or ichthammol drawing salves are often recommended by doctors. These salves are believed to speed up the process of pus formation, potentially allowing the boil to drain and heal by itself. The ingredients in drawing salves can increase blood flow to the affected area, potentially assisting the body’s natural skin care processes.

Will Drawing Salve Draw Out Infection?

There is no scientific evidence that drawing salve can help treat infections. It can’t reduce fever or eliminate bacteria inside the body.

This type of ointment is only designed for topical use, which means it should only be applied to the surface of the skin, not to cuts, scrapes or burns. If you have a serious skin infection, infected cuts, sores or wounds, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor.

To get rid of persistent skin infections, a doctor may need to prescribe an oral and topical antibiotic ointment. The type of antibiotic required depends on the infection causing the problem.

What Should You Do and Avoid If You Have a Boil?

If you’re planning on using a drawing salve to treat a boil, never attempt to remove the pus yourself. Don’t squeeze the boil or cut it open. Doing this could expose you to harmful skin infections and lead to significant complications.

One option is to wait and see if the boil drains on its own. For large boils, however, you generally need to see a doctor. The doctor may recommend applying a drawing salve for several days to help the abscess come to a head.

A doctor can make a small cut to remove pus and allow the area to heal properly. In addition, dermatologists can treat the underlying cause of the boil, such as a weakened immune system.

How Effective Are Ichthammol Drawing Salves?

The evidence in support of using drawing salve is mainly anecdotal. In other words, it’s not based on scientific studies, but instead on testimonies from people who have used it in the past. It’s best to take this type of evidence with a grain of salt.

The good news is that, unless you’re allergic to the ingredients in the salve, there don’t appear to be any negative side effects. It may be worth trying ichthyol or ichthammol drawing salves to see if they work in your case. Be sure to speak with your doctor if you have any reservations.

It’s important to reiterate that this information does not apply to black “drawing” salve containing bloodroot. Black salve is highly dangerous and should be avoided completely.

How Do You Use Drawing Salve?

Place a small amount of the salve on your finger and apply it to the affected area. Rub it into the skin gently, trying not to put any pressure on painful spots. It doesn’t matter if there’s an excess of the salve as it will gradually soak into the skin.

Leave the drawing salve in place overnight. If necessary, you can reapply for two or three nights. You should see the tip of the splinter or glass shard begin to emerge. After that, use a pair of tweezers to grasp and pull outward gently.

In the case of boils, follow the doctor’s instructions for application. You may need to apply ichthammol ointment a few times a day for several days.

What Precautions Should You Take With Ichthammol Drawing Salve?

When using any skin salve as a topical treatment for eczema or irritation, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor or dermatologist. Some people have sensitive skin, and even natural ingredients can cause allergies or irritation.

It’s especially important to tell your doctor about allergies to lanolin or other common ingredients in skin creams. Drawing salve generally contains lanolin for moisturizing.

If you notice signs of an allergic reaction, stop using the product right away. This isn’t a common occurrence with drawing salve, but it can happen. Keep an eye out for any sensations of stinging, itching, redness, blisters or swelling.

Discussion Comments


@orangey03 – My aunt uses ground cumin seeds to make a natural drawing salve. She grinds them with water in a food processor.

She puts this paste on the area with the boil or splinter, and she covers it with a bandage. This keeps the salve in place and keeps it from smudging off onto the furniture or clothing.

I've also heard of a few other simple yet safe forms of drawing salve. One is a piece of bread that has been soaked in milk, and another is a heated slice of tomato.


Does anyone know of any natural drawing salves? I don't feel safe putting black salve on my skin, but if there is some easy combination of harmless ingredients that can do the trick, I would love to give it a try.


@OeKc05 – Some online sources of information about drawing salves do state that it can be used on acne. However, they also say that you should get a doctor's opinion on this before trying it.

Some drawing salves can really mess up your skin. If your acne is on your face, then you might regret using it there. What if you happen to be allergic or the salve burns some of your skin off?


Can you use boil drawing salve for acne? I would think that since it is supposed to draw the toxin or debris out of your skin, it would be ideal for drawing the pus out of big, deep pimples. However, I've never heard of anyone using it for this.

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    • Fingertip with a dab of drawing salve.
      Fingertip with a dab of drawing salve.
    • Drawing salve may help treat the symptoms associated with a bee sting.
      By: Alekss
      Drawing salve may help treat the symptoms associated with a bee sting.
    • If used topically, salve ointment is not linked to any serious damage.
      By: agephotography
      If used topically, salve ointment is not linked to any serious damage.