What is Carbolic Salve?

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

Carbolic acid, also known as phenyl alcohol, is a weak acid distilled from coal tar. Undiluted, it can be fatal if ingested, but is found in diluted forms in a number of consumer products as an antiseptic, deodorizer, or disinfectant. Carbolic salve is a salve which contains diluted carbolic acid mixed with an oil base and used to treat minor cuts, scrapes, burns, skin rashes and insect bites.

Carbolic salve was promoted for use on sores and bruises.
Carbolic salve was promoted for use on sores and bruises.

Until the twentieth century, survival rates for surgery were fairly low. While the surgery may have been successful, the patient often died of infection. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon who subscribed to the germ theory as a cause of infections, became interested in the use of carbolic acid to kill bacteria. Encouraged by the successful treatment of water with this substance, he decided to use diluted carbolic acid to clean surgical wounds on his patients. After nine months he was able to report the astounding news that not one patient so treated had developed post-surgical sepsis, or blood infection.

Burns and skin rashes may be treated with carbolic salve that's been diluted.
Burns and skin rashes may be treated with carbolic salve that's been diluted.

It took some time for the medical community to embrace this new treatment, but by the 1880’s, products such as carbolic soap and carbolic salve began to appear on apothecary shelves. Some of the claims for the curative powers of carbolic salve were a bit extreme, including cures for everything from worms to burns to facial pimples. Several companies created their own versions of the salve, using a variety of ingredients including lard or some other oil base, wax and herbs. Other plant products were often added for additional medicinal benefits, such as persimmon to act as an astringent in helping to close the wound.

A person may place carbolic salve on a deep splinter, cover it with a bandage, and change it a couple times a day to promote healing.
A person may place carbolic salve on a deep splinter, cover it with a bandage, and change it a couple times a day to promote healing.

Carbolic salve has won a place in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of over 4000 patent medicines dated from the 1800’s onward. The product they have on display is A.D.S. Carbolic Salve, which was manufactured by the American Druggist Syndicate in 1930 and promoted for use on sores and bruises. Unlike some of the patent medicines of that era, this product does have several health benefits and continues to be sold.

Carbolic salve may be used to treat minor cuts and scrapes.
Carbolic salve may be used to treat minor cuts and scrapes.

Veterinarians and dairy farmers still use the ointment to treat minor scratches and cuts on animals and to soothe dry, chapped skin on cow udders. It is a common household product as well. In addition to treating cuts and skin conditions, carbolic salve has a drawing quality that works with slivers, splinters and boils. A person can place the salve on a deep splinter, cover it with some type of bandage, and change it a couple times a day. Quite often, only a few applications are required to draw out the offending object.

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Discussion Comments

anon346809

Neosporin doesn't work for me; it only irritates my skin more. I was lucky to have grown up with a grandmother who used carbolic salve! Even now, at 30, I use it in my first aid kit, because it works great and doesn't cause me more irritation, like other salves.

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    • Fingertip with a dab of drawing salve.
      Fingertip with a dab of drawing salve.
    • Carbolic salve was promoted for use on sores and bruises.
      Carbolic salve was promoted for use on sores and bruises.
    • Burns and skin rashes may be treated with carbolic salve that's been diluted.
      Burns and skin rashes may be treated with carbolic salve that's been diluted.
    • A person may place carbolic salve on a deep splinter, cover it with a bandage, and change it a couple times a day to promote healing.
      A person may place carbolic salve on a deep splinter, cover it with a bandage, and change it a couple times a day to promote healing.
    • Carbolic salve may be used to treat minor cuts and scrapes.
      Carbolic salve may be used to treat minor cuts and scrapes.
    • Carbolic salve may be used to treat insect bites.
      Carbolic salve may be used to treat insect bites.
    • Carbolic salve can be used to treat skin rashes.
      Carbolic salve can be used to treat skin rashes.