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Red salve is a caustic ointment made from bloodroot, a plant poisonous to humans. Traditionally, it is used in holistic medicine to treat cancer as well as remove skin tags and warts. Its ingredients vary widely depending on who is making it, since it is created primarily by proponents of alternative medicine. Also known as "black salve," bloodroot salve is considered a quack cure that can cause extreme skin damage if used.
Bloodroot is a heart-shaped, red root with blood-like sap. It is poisonous to humans and animals—when rubbed on the skin, it has a caustic effect, destroying skin and muscle cells. People who have used it have developed raw holes in their arms and legs or have literally had their noses eaten away. Applying red salve does not destroy cancer cells in any kind of targeted manner. Using it will not affect cancer which has spread to other parts of the body besides the skin, and it does not prevent cancer growths from reoccurring.
Red salve has a history of being used by the Native Americans as a skin treatment. They considered its taste so unappealing that they also prescribed ingesting it as an emetic. In the 1920s, this tradition inspired former American coal miner Harry Hoxsey to began peddling a "red salve" for the treatment of cancer. The salve's original recipe included bloodroot, antimony and zinc. Arsenic, sulfur and talc were also used.
Known as "Hoxsey's Therapy," his red salve led to financial success. Though banned by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for being useless in treating cancer, the salve is still sold by the Bio-Medical Center in Tijuana, Mexico. The modern recipe may also contain additives such as antiseptic.
Besides the Bio-Medical Clinic, which was begun by one of Hoxsey's supporters after his death, there are many private individuals concocting red salve for their own use. Since the ingredients in red salve can vary, it can be hard to tell what distinguishes each type. "Black salve" seems to be simply a colloquial name rather than a specific type of preparation.
To confuse matters further, there are many types of "red salves" which do not contain bloodroot. One type of red salve is used to treat small open wounds on horses' legs. Another has the main ingredient of red clover flowers and contains no bloodroot. Some red salves are simply red because their manufacturers have added pigmentation.