Monkey’s Blood (Mercurochrome) for those boo-boos

Do you remember Monkey’s Blood or Mercurochrome? It was an antiseptic that burned like crazy, dyed your skin reddish orange and contained mercury. Oh and for seven decades parents loved the stuff.

Remember when you were a kid and you would were out roughhousing with your friends. Maybe you are running along the sidewalk when suddenly you trip and scrape your knee. You pop up, survey the damage and realize that the whole course of your day has changed.

You have been wounded.

So you run home to your parents for evaluation. How serious will it be? According to your older sister, they are probably going to amputate, but you learned a long time ago not to trust her medical opinion. So you go to Mom.

Best case scenario? She wipes it down and sends you on your way. Worst case scenario? She takes you to the bathroom and pulls out the Monkey’s Blood, more commonly known as Merthiolate or Mercurochrome.

Mercurochrome was this rich bright reddish antiseptic that was a common disinfect from the late 1910s to the 1990s. While it worked as an antiseptic, it also dapened the pain of the injury, which I can only assume was a side-effect of the tremendous burning sensation you got when Mercurochrome was applied. It was like a bottle of lava that filled me with both dread and fascination.

Why do they call it Monkey’s Blood?
You might think that the term Monkey’s Blood has a complicated origin, but the answer is very simple. It is called Monkey’s Blood because it is read. Weirdly, other red things like fruit sauces also carry this moniker in different regions.

On the upside, it stained your skin reddish orange for days. So all my friends new I had been injured without me having to draw attention to just how tough I was.

If they only had seen my crying in agony as my Mother touched the Mercurochrome wand to the wound. But that secret is between me, my Mom and her trusty bottle of Mercurochrome.

And Mercurochrome ain’t talking anymore.

On October 19, 1998, citing potential for mercury poisoning, the Food and Drug Administration reclassified merbromin from “generally recognized as safe” to “untested,” which effectively halted its distribution in the United States.

It was later banned in other countries, but in the majority of the world you can still buy it over the counter. In the US, a few non-Mercury containing products have been released with similar names. I do not miss Monkey’s Blood and if it endangered my health in any way, I am glad it off the market. But I gotta admit, a small part of me takes pride in having survived repeated use of this dread liquid.

10 replies on “Monkey’s Blood (Mercurochrome) for those boo-boos”

I don’t blame you. At one point we bought this spray, that burned wounds just a little, but was also very cooling. If I came home with a cut of some sort, it was gamble which one would get applied.

Apparently, the antiseptics of old were a compound known as merbromin, usually
dissolved into a solution at 1% or 2% strength for application. Though everyone seems to agree that it was an effective remedy for infection, the reason that there are some conflicting accounts on whether or not this neon-orange stuff was likely to burn like fire when applied is because of the different potential liquids the solution sold as Mercurochrome might have dissolved that merbromin compound into. The variety in our house inevitably bore a label describing the contents as a 2% aqueous solution – meaning that it was mostly distilled water, and I never found it painful, In fact, it was reliably the best way to reduce annoyance from persistent nagging irritations like paper cuts, splinters, or hangnails that had become a distraction, at which point a small drop of the red stuff would be sought out and within an hour or so became something I no longer thought about.

The other variety, however, was a solution of merbromin in ALCOHOL, and I imagine this was the reason so many people recoiled from the mention of mercurochrome if that was the sort that their parents kept in the cabinet. Of course, the stinging pain would be the fault of the alcohol and not the merbromin, and I would imagine it was probably hoped that the alcohol would also contribute to reduction in microbes along with that active ingredient. I found the distilled water to be plenty effective enough though, so it was probably unnecessary suffering to subject kids to the alcohol treatment.

I am personally quite glad that I knew nothing of the latter variety until encountering such vastly different memories of how much it stung caused me to investigate why I had no such experience despite that being the goto cure for anything that caused skin damage on people or pets in our household. I remember about a half bottle of the stuff being used to paint about an entire hindquarter of a large dog that had a bad allergic reaction to fleas that resulted in a goopy sort of oozing rash. The alternative was some very expensive antibiotic offered by the vet, which my mother eschewed in favor of turning the dog fluorescent orange. The crustiness cleared up and flaked off within about two days afterward, and the dog was fine, if a bit odd looking for a short time.

I think with everything around us causing cancer anyway, I am happy to keep using mercurochrome over the neosporins and bactines which never seem to work as quickly or as well in treating a wound. I have to order it from outside the USA, unfortunately, but I find it worth stocking up on just in case that should no longer be possible one day… If there is an apocalypse of sorts, I imagine it might be a valuable commodity to have even an ancient antique flask of the stuff provided it contains even a few drops of really old mercurochrome. Apparently, time doesn’t reduce efficacy as much as it does with other remedies, and it might be just as effective 100 years later…

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