The Health Risks of Black Salve

Experts Recommend Against the Use of the Herbal Paste

Black salve, also known as drawing salve, is a corrosive herbal paste that's applied to the skin over tumors, skin tags, moles, and infections. It has also been applied to the skin over internal tumor sites to “draw out” cancer.

Woman applying ointment on her arm
Getty Images / Eric Audras

Black Salve Variations

Black salve was created by Native Americans to "draw out" infections from the body. The original black salve included the herb bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and crushed ash, however, there are now many variations on the original recipe.

Other common ingredients include chaparral (Larrea tridentata), DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), chickweed (Stellaria media), Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), zinc, and Sodom's apple (Solanum sodomaeum).

Black salve is also known as drawing salve, black ointment, or escharotics.

Purported Health Benefits

Although black salves are widely available on the Internet, there is no scientific evidence showing that they are safe or effective. There is also no evidence that these treatments can "draw out" cancer cells or infection.

Cancer

Black salves have been tested and have not been shown to be effective in treating cancer—and problematic in treating benign moles and skin tags. In addition, the FDA has listed black salve as a health fraud when it comes to the treatment of cancer.

A 2014 published study entitled "Application of black salve to a thin melanoma that subsequently progressed to metastatic melanoma: a case study" follows the story of a woman who used the black salve to treat melanoma after refusing typical excision with wide margins. The treatment was unsuccessful and the woman wound up with deep scars and metastatic organ cancers.

Moles and Skin Tags

Black salves are caustic, meaning that they burn away the skin. This may suggest that they would be helpful in removing benign skin features such as moles and skin tags, but they can cause significant tissue damage and scarring compared to more standard procedures.

Because the compounding of black salves is not regulated, it is impossible to know the potency of the preparation before you apply it. As a result, the preparation may be extremely caustic, meaning that it may burn surrounding tissue. The tissue may become infected and can scar.

While typical removal of moles and scars does involve cutting away a small amount of skin, the procedure is sterile and local anesthesia is used to minimize pain. Black salves, however, may be painful to the skin — particularly when used on skin that is already inflamed.

Possible Side Effects

Possible side effects of using black salve include incomplete removal of the tumor, severe scarring, and the destruction of surrounding tissue. Health experts also advise that burning of the skin and extreme discomfort is also possible.

Most importantly, if you treat any condition—especially cancer—with black salve, you delay or complicate treatments that have been established as being more effective. The long term consequences may be devastating.

What to Look For

The use of black salve is not recommended. If you have a skin tag or mole, see your primary care provider for personalized advice. You can also speak with a board-certified dermatologist to get specialized care.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, work together with your health care team to find traditional and alternative approaches to treatment. Many medical centers have several options to choose from. When you work together with your medical provider, you ensure the best comprehensive care and treatment.

If you choose to use any supplement, talk to your medical team first. You can get online tips regarding the use of supplements, but your best option for personalized advice is your own health care provider.

Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications have not been established. Self-treating any condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

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  1. Croaker A, King GJ, Pyne JH, Anoopkumar-Dukie S, Liu L. A review of black salve: Cancer specificity, cure, and cosmesisEvid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017;2017:9184034. doi:10.1155/2017/9184034

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA 101: Health fraud awareness. Updated May, 2009.

  3. Sivyer GW, Rosendahl C. Application of black salve to a thin melanoma that subsequently progressed to metastatic melanoma: a case studyDermatol Pract Concept. 2014;4(3):77–80. doi:10.5826/dpc.0403a16

  4. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Skin conditions at a glance. Updated November 13, 2019.

  5. MedlinePlus. Protecting yourself from cancer scams. Updated July 26, 2018.