What is Mercurochrome™?

A bottle of Mercurochrome™.

Mercurochrome™ is a product that was once widely marketed for use as a topical antiseptic. Thanks to changes in how the US Food and Drug Administration considers 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 based on merbromin, a chemical that must be suspended in an alcohol or water solution before being used as an antiseptic.

Mercury was used to disinfect minor cuts and scrapes.

This product was marketed for use on minor cuts and scrapes during the 20th century. It usually had a reddish to brown color that would stain the skin when applied and, if suspended in alcohol, could sting a little. Mercurochrome™ was recommended for use on people of all ages, and many people in the mid-20th century had a bottle in their bathroom cabinet for home use.

The color of mercurochrome makes it difficult to detect the first signs of infection in a wound.

There are two issues with Mercurochrome™ and other merbromin products. The first is that they contain mercury, a metal known to be poisonous. While no one has definitively linked Mercurochrome™ to mercury poisoning, presumably because the metal is only present in small amounts, many people prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to mercury. The FDA originally approved the drug and later decided that it should be banned until further research could prove it was safe to use.

The second issue with Mercurochrome™ is color. The dark reddish to brownish stain covers the natural color of the skin around the wound, making it difficult to detect the first signs of infection. Skin that is red and irritated will be difficult to see under a layer of Mercurochrome™, which means the infection can go unnoticed until it becomes much bigger. Clear topical antiseptics or non-staining antiseptics are preferred so that wounds can be clearly visualized.

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Although this drug is no longer widely used, it has an iconic status. Mercurochrome™ frequently appears in books and stories set in the mid-20th century, and people who lived in that era may have fond memories of it. For people who are unfamiliar with the drug, references to it in various media from when it was used can be confusing, and people who refer to merbromin products when talking about wound care are obviously thinking in an earlier age.

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