The idea of a home remedy that can cure skin cancer may sound appealing, but dermatologists will tell you it’s too good to be true. According to new research published in the May issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the vast majority of patients who use the home remedy black salve do so without talking to a dermatologist first — and as a result, many are unaware of how harmful it can be.

A 70-year-old patient regularly applied black salve to lesions on his back, resulting in ulcerations with cellulitis. Image/American Academy of Dermatology
A 70-year-old patient regularly applied black salve to lesions on his back, resulting in ulcerations with cellulitis.
Image/American Academy of Dermatology

The term “black salve” refers to a family of substances containing the corrosive ingredients zinc chloride and sanguinarine, which can severely damage the skin. Some patients apply these products to suspected skin cancers because they think it’s an easy way to remove them; however, black salve can destroy the top layer of skin while leaving cancer behind in the deeper layers, where the disease may continue to grow.

“There is a misperception that black salve ‘draws the cancer out,’ when, in fact, it just indiscriminately damages anything it touches,” says board-certified dermatologist Mark J. Eliason, MD, FAAD, a member of the University of Utah team that conducted the research. “One of the reasons black salve treatment is so dangerous is that many users have no idea how harmful it can be.”

In interviewing black salve users for their research, the Utah team found that 74 percent of those users were unaware of the potential side effects — which include infection, extensive scarring and disfigurement — before they applied the substance to their skin. In addition to these side effects, black salve use may delay the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer, giving the disease the opportunity to spread and become harder to remove — even life-threatening.

While manufacturers and distributors of black salve market their products as “easy and natural” treatments, there is no solid research supporting the safety and efficacy of black salve use, says board-certified dermatologist Sarah D. Cipriano, MD, MPH, who headed the research team. Moreover, she says, these products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which included black salve on its list of “187 Fake Cancer ‘Cures’ Consumers Should Avoid.”

“Although black salve is labeled as a natural product, it is not a safe one,” Dr. Cipriano says. “Relying on word-of-mouth, marketing testimonials and Internet searches is dangerous when it comes to your health.”

The vast majority of the black salve users interviewed by the Utah researchers said they learned about the home remedy from a family member or friend; only 30 percent of those interviewed consulted a dermatologist before using black salve. When asked why they opted to use a home remedy instead of receiving treatment from a doctor, some of those interviewed indicated they wanted to avoid surgery, while others simply said it was convenient. Some users also indicated that they didn’t feel comfortable discussing black salve with their doctor.

“If you see something on your skin that looks suspicious or is different from other spots on your skin, it’s important to see a board-certified dermatologist for the proper diagnosis and treatment,” Dr. Eliason says. “When skin cancer is not treated promptly or properly, the effects can be devastating.”

Dr. Cipriano has seen those effects firsthand. Early in her residency, she met a patient undergoing surgery for an aggressive skin cancer that eventually claimed his life. While he could have survived with early detection and treatment, he had delayed seeking medical care, opting instead to use black salve.

“I’ve worked with many patients who have experienced the harmful side effects of black salve use,” Dr. Cipriano says. “We hope our research will raise awareness about the potential dangers of these products, which far outweigh the supposed benefits. We encourage patients to consult with a dermatologist or other health care provider before considering a home remedy like black salve.”