Mercurochrome™ is a product which was once widely marketed for use as a topical antiseptic. Thanks to changes in the way the US Food and Drug Administration regards Mercurochrome™, the product is not readily available in the United States today, although it can be found in many other regions of the world. This antiseptic is part of a family of products made with a base of merbromin, a chemical which must be suspended in an alcohol or water solution before it can be used as an antiseptic.
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.
The second issue with Mercurochrome™ is the color. The dark reddish to brown stain covers up the natural color of the skin around the wound, making it hard to detect the early signs of infection. Skin which is red and irritated will be difficult to see under a coating of Mercurochrome™, which means that the infection could be missed until it grows much larger. Clear topical antiseptics or antiseptics which do not stain are preferred so that wounds can be clearly visualized.
Although this drug is not in wide use any more, it has an iconic status. Mercurochrome™ often appears in books and stories set in the mid-20th century, and people who lived during this era may have fond memories of it. For people who are not familiar with the drug, the references to it in various media from the era when it was used can be confusing, and people who refer to merbromin products when they talk about wound care are obviously thinking of an earlier era.
Although Mercurochrome™, a popular antiseptic throughout the 20th century, may no longer be sold on the shelves due to its dubious safety status and pending FDA approval, the need for antiseptics to clean wounds has not diminished. A suitable replacement for Mercurochrome™ had to be found, and in most homes today you will find it in the form of some brand of iodine- or thiomersal-based antiseptic located in medicine cabinets.
Mercurochrome™ vs. Iodine
Iodine is a tincture, or medicine made by dissolving a drug in water, comprising elemental iodine and/or sodium iodide in an alcohol solution. Mercurochrome™ is a chemical compound composed of mercury and bromine anchored in water and referred to as merbromin. Iodine is a non-metal, while mercury (in Mercurochrome™) is a known metal element that exists as a liquid at room temperature and is infamous for associated poisoning.
While both are topical antiseptics, iodine tincture is more effective at killing bacteria than its counterpart, Mercurochrome™.
Mercurochrome™ vs. Merthiolate™ (Thiomersal)
What is interesting about the two drugs compared here is that both carry traces of mercury. However, while one is banned in the United States pending FDA approval, the other has a wide array of uses that transcend its function topical antiseptic. It is also present in vaccines, immunoglobulins, nasal sprays, eye drops, contact solutions, and anti-fungal treatments (creams, jellies, ointments).
Merthiolate™ appears as a white/yellow powder and is a combination of mercury with two ligands, one from the thiolate group and another from the ethyl group. As mentioned, Mercurochrome™ is a metallic compound composed of mercury and bromine and appears as a reddish dye. Mercurochrome™ was used as an organic dye before concerns over mercury resulted in its removal from store shelves in the United States.
Is Mercurochrome™ Anti-Fungal?
One study on merbromin revealed that it has proven efficacious in terms of healing and providing relief to symptoms caused by negative fungal cultures. In developing countries, such as Nigeria, Mercurochrome™ is a drug deemed both economical and safe. It is often applied topically to treat otomycosis, a fungal infection of the outer ear.
As it turns out, the decision to disenfranchise merbromin as an antiseptic is not as widely adopted as one may assume at first glance. While typically at the forefront of medical trends, the United States is only joined in its stance against Mercurochrome™ by a handful of other countries: Switzerland, Germany, France, Brazil, and Iran. The common factor is that the ban was motivated by merbromin’s status as an organo-mercuric compound.
Elsewhere around the world, merbromin is still used to treat wounds and fungal infections and has its uses as a biological dye due to its reddish-brown color. In fact, citizens of the United States could go on eBay or through an online vendor to purchase Mercurochrome™ if they genuinely wished, as it is not banned in most countries, including our neighboring Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.
As our scientific knowledge has expanded over the last century, many of the drug formulas once heralded by our grandparents have fallen out of favor in the 21st century. Mercurochrome™ is not the only organo-mercuric compound to have been phased out of use pending FDA approval in the United States.
Below is a short list of historically banned organo-mercury compounds that have had disastrous consequences on human health.
- Methyl Mercury (CH3HgX): used as an agricultural seed dressing and fungicide.
- Ethylene (C2H5HgX): used as a cereal seed dressing.
- C6H5HgX: seed dressing and slimicide.
Aside from being a popular antiseptic, the antifungal potential of mercury-based chemical compounds made their incorporation into the agricultural field a necessity during the 20th century. From pesticides to seed dressings, they were everywhere and used to the point of excess.
While it is easy to persuade adults and children not to drink Mercurochrome™, the use of mercury in grain fields throughout the mid-1900s made ingestion of the toxin unavoidable. Its commercialized use in products beyond medicine gave rise to serious health complications induced by organic mercury toxicosis.