Black salve

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Black salve, also known by the brand name Cansema, is a dangerous and controversial alternative cancer treatment. The product is commonly classified as an escharotic—that is, a topical paste which burns and destroys skin tissue and leaves behind a thick, black scar called an eschar.[1] Escharotics were widely used to treat skin lesions in the early 1900s, but have since been replaced by safer and more effective treatments.[2] Escharotics, such as black salves, are currently advertised by some alternative medicine marketers as treatments for skin cancer, often with unsubstantiated testimonials and unproven claims of effectiveness.[3]

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has listed Cansema as a "fake cancer cure" and warns consumers to avoid it.[4]

Usages and dangers[edit]

Cancer salves were first documented as a form of quackery in a 1955 Time article:

"A 37-year-old housewife had a skin condition that later (at Duke) proved not to be a cancer. Convinced that it was, she had gone to a backwoods healer, who applied a salve. Soon a quarter-sized hole disfigured her nose, opened up the nasal cavity. Duke's plastic surgeons had to build her a new nose."[5]

Although more recent reports document that some alternative medicine practitioners use the Internet to market escharotics as purported "cures" for skin cancer,[3][6] they are not recommended as treatments for skin lesions or skin cancer by medical authorities. The effectiveness of escharotics is unproven, while safer and more effective conventional treatments exist for skin cancers, such as: cryotherapy; topical agents such as imiquimod, fluorouracil and Ingenol mebutate; radiation therapy; and surgical excision, including Mohs surgery[3] (microscopically controlled surgery used to remove and test cancerous tissue).

Escharotics can cause serious scarring and damage to normal skin. Their manufacture is largely unregulated, so the strength and purity of marketed products are unknown and unverified.[3] Numerous reports in the medical literature describe serious consequences of using escharotics in place of standard treatments for skin cancer, ranging from disfigurement to preventable cancer recurrences.[1][6][7][8] The website Quackwatch posted a warning against the use of escharotics in 2008. The site collected a variety of sourced documents compiling issues of patient injury from the use of escharotics.[9] A recent study revealed that many individuals who have used black salve were unaware of its potential dangers.[10] In a 2016 news release titled "Beware of black salve," the American Academy of Dermatology urged patients to consult a dermatologist before using home remedies for skin cancers.[11]


Common ingredients of black salves include zinc chloride, chaparral (also known as creosote bush),[12] and often bloodroot, a plant frequently used in herbal medicine.[13] The extract of bloodroot is called sanguinarine, an ammonium salt which attacks and destroys living tissue and is also classified as an escharotic.


Cansema is listed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as one of 187 fake cancer cures.[4] Cansema continues to be marketed by numerous individuals, as evidenced by recent FDA Warning Letters.[14] The FDA has taken enforcement action against illegal marketing of Cansema as a cancer cure, as in the 2004 arrest and conviction of Greg Caton.[15]

The FDA has taken an active role in the banning of these chemicals for use as a cancer cure.[16] Typical warning letters detail the dangers of this product while also admonishing the purveyors of their obligation to comply with federal law.[17] Summaries of recent letters are cataloged on the FDA website.[18]

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of Australia is advising consumers against purchasing or using black salve, red salve or cansema products.[19] The TGA has found the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network (AVN) in breach of advertising regulations,[20] and in a separate finding the AVN's former president Meryl Dorey together with Leon Pittard of Fair Dinkum Radio were found to be in breach.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Jellinek N, Maloney ME (September 2005). "Escharotic and other botanical agents for the treatment of skin cancer: a review". J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 53 (3): 487–95. PMID 16112359. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2005.04.090. 
  2. ^ Staff, Mayo Clinic (June 30, 2010). "Mohs Surgery". Mayo Clinic Patient Information MY01304. Mayo Clinic Website. Retrieved January 4, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d Ngan, Vanessa (December 21, 2009). "Escharotic agents". DermNet NZ. New Zealand Dermatological Society. Retrieved January 1, 2010. 
  4. ^ a b "187 Fake Cancer "Cures" Consumers Should Avoid". U.S. Food and Drug Administration. July 7, 2009. Retrieved December 21, 2009. 
  5. ^ "Cancer Quacks". Time Magazine. Time, Inc. February 28, 1955. Retrieved October 21, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b McDaniel S, Goldman GD (December 2002). "Consequences of using escharotic agents as primary treatment for nonmelanoma skin cancer". Arch Dermatol. 138 (12): 1593–6. PMID 12472348. doi:10.1001/archderm.138.12.1593. 
  7. ^ Affleck AG, Varma S (November 2007). "A case of do-it-yourself Mohs' surgery using bloodroot obtained from the internet". Br. J. Dermatol. 157 (5): 1078–9. PMID 17854372. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2007.08180.x. 
  8. ^ Osswald SS, Elston DM, Farley MF, Alberti JG, Cordero SC, Kalasinsky VF (September 2005). "Self-treatment of a basal cell carcinoma with "black and yellow salve"". J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 53 (3): 509–11. PMID 16112364. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2005.04.007. 
  9. ^ Barrett, Stephen (December 22, 2008). "Don't Use Corrosive Cancer Salves (Escharotics)". Quackwatch. Retrieved December 21, 2009. 
  10. ^ Clark JJ, Woodcock A, Cipriano SD, Hyde MA, Edwards SL, Frost CJ, Eliason MJ (May 2016). "Community perceptions about the use of black salve". J. Am. Acad. of Dermal. 74 (5): 1021–1023. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2015.10.016. 
  11. ^ American Academy of Dermatology (May 11, 2016). "Beware of black salve". [Press Release]. Retrieved October 19, 2016. 
  12. ^ Health Canada warns consumers not to take products containing chaparral. December 21, 2005.
  13. ^ Kettering, Sloan (April 12, 1998). "Herbal Database – Bloodroot". MSKCC. Retrieved June 10, 2010. 
  14. ^ Rodriguez Jr., Reynaldo R. (May 20, 2008). "Hampton, Burt 20-May-08". Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved January 1, 2010. 
  15. ^ "Chapter 6: Office of Criminal Investigations – Fiscal Year 2004" (PDF). Food and Drug Administration. April 6, 2006. Retrieved January 1, 2010. 
  16. ^ "FDA Warns Against Internet Sales of Fake Cancer Cures". Health News. June 20, 2008. Archived from the original on October 25, 2008. Retrieved February 15, 2010. 
  17. ^ "Warning Letter to Black Salve Seller". Food and Drug Administration Letter. May 20, 2008. Retrieved February 15, 2010. 
  18. ^ "FDA Fake Cancer Cure Warning Letters". FDA. 2008. Retrieved February 15, 2010. 
  19. ^ "Black and red salves in treating cancer". "(Australian) Therapeutic Goods Administraction. March 19, 2012. Retrieved March 13, 2013. 
  20. ^ "Complaint against AVN over black salve advertising". "(Australian) Therapeutic Goods Administraction Complaints Resolution Panel. August 16, 2012. Archived from the original on May 13, 2016. Retrieved March 13, 2013. 
  21. ^ "Complaint against Meryl Dorey and Leon Pittard over black salve advertising". "(Australian) Therapeutic Goods Administraction Complaints Resolution Panel. August 16, 2012. Archived from the original on May 14, 2016. Retrieved March 13, 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Hurley D. Natural Causes: Death, Lies, and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry. New York: Broadway Books, 2006. ISBN 0-7679-2042-2

External links[edit]