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.