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This webpage addresses the use of bloodroot-based cancer salves. These types of products are usually a thick, black commercial preparation, however they may come in other colors such as red, brown, or yellow. Bloodroot-based salves are oftentimes recommended by alternative practitioners as a natural treatment for skin cancers, though they may be recommended for other uses. The varying formulations of salves depend upon the manufacturer, and though all contain natural herbs they also include significant amounts of synthetic chemicals – such as zinc chloride and dimethyl sulfoxide – which voids out claims of being a “natural” remedy. The primary active ingredients in these salves are zinc chloride and bloodroot (Sangiunaria canadensis),1 both of which are corrosive substances. If you have already bought a cancer salve with any of these ingredients please read this entire webpage before any further use.


Cancer salves using zinc chloride and bloodroot are classified as escharotic, which are substances which chemically burn away layers of surface tissue leaving behind a blackened area of dead tissue known as an eschar (pronounced ESS-kar). An eschar is not the same as a scab; scabs are “caps” that your body makes from fibrin and other proteins to cover and protect scrapes and wounds. An eschar, on the other hand, is a layer of blackened, dead cells lying on the surface of traumatized tissues (examples of eschars include the blackened surfaces of gangrenous tissues and/or severe frostbite). Because bloodroot-based salves destroy the body tissues on which they are applied (thus creating the eschar) these are often touted as alternative treatments for skin cancers. The idea is that the destruction of the cancer cells via the salve effectively destroys the tumor, thus curing the patient.



The first commercial cancer salve was originally formulated in the 1850's by Dr. Jesse Weldon Fell, a surgeon who, after hearing reports of Native Americans using bloodroot2 to treat cancers, began experimenting with bloodroot in combination with different substances to treat his patients. Because he had been hearing news that zinc chloride had some benefit in cancer treatment he leaned toward combining it with the bloodroot as the two primary ingredients, as well as trying other other substances.3 Because he became a strong advocate of using the combination of bloodroot and zinc chloride this basic formula came to be known as “Fell's Paste.” In spite of his advocacy this early version of cancer salve did not become popular until the 1930's, when Dr. Frederic Mohs began to use a similar compound on his patients to heal their skin cancers. During these treatments Dr. Mohs discovered that the compound “fixed” the affected tissue, meaning it preserved the cellular material well enough for microscopic examination. Using this to his advantage, Dr. Mohs developed an new technique for treating skin cancer; his method was to apply the compound to a cancerous lesion for a short period of time, surgically remove the affected tissue afterward, and examine it under a microscope to see if any cancer remained. If cancer was still detected he would carefully reapply the salve only to the little areas where cancer remained, avoiding the surrounding healthy tissues, and repeat the process, layer by layer, until no cancer could be detected. This fixed tissue technique worked so well it quickly became popular in the medical profession for treating skin cancers. In the early 1950's, due to an especially delicate procedure on a patient's eyelid, an alternate Mohs technique was developed, known as the “fresh tissue technique.” In this technique the paste is not applied, however the affected tissue is removed with a scalpel and examined, layer by layer, until all traces of cancer are removed. Today, both techniques are known as forms of “Mohs surgery” and tend to be used primarily in the treatment of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers.

Because this method of treatment is a surgical procedure which needs precise application of the salve and microscopic examination to confirm destruction of the cancer it requires a licensed professional who is specifically trained to perform Mohs surgery. Due to the fact that many skin tumors may grow deep, wide, and irregularly shaped, the doctor performing this type of procedure should be trained as a cancer surgeon, pathologist, and reconstructive surgeon. A trained Mohs surgeon is able to treat the cancer with minimal tissue invasion and greatly reduce the risk of causing scar tissue. Fortunately, a large number of dermatologists are trained in Mohs surgery, meaning a patient is able to keep the same doctor (who is already familiar with his or her case) throughout treatment.


In the world of alternative medicine many practitioners will advise the use of bloodroot-based salves to treat a number of skin conditions, oftentimes claiming that a skin condition is “cancer” without the patient having a valid biopsy to confirm it. A biopsy involves taking a small sample of the affected tissue and examining it under a microscope to look for cancer cells. Although there are three common forms of skin cancer there are also several other less-common forms, as well as a few pre-cancerous conditions.4 With this in mind, take note that some non-cancerous conditions may look like skin cancer, and some skin cancers may look like non-cancerous conditions. Because of this problem not even a trained, licensed dermatologist should diagnose a cancer without a biopsy. Therefore, alternative practitioners who say that they can diagnose skin cancer by naked-eye should be avoided as they are more interested in “making the sale” than your health. All unusual skin changes require a valid biopsy which can only be performed by a trained, licensed professional; an ethical alternative practitioner will understand and support this. For skin cancer patients who do have a valid diagnosis, please note that the vast majority of alternative practitioners are not properly trained in the use of cancer salve treatments or Mohs surgical techniques. If your alternative practitioner claims to be trained in Mohs surgery be sure he or she has the proper credentials before agreeing to the treatments.

Another major problem is that a large number of alternative practitioners aren't properly educated in the basic properties of bloodroot salves, erroneously believing that the compound “draws out” or pulls the cancer out in order to destroy it. In truth, bloodroot salve neither pulls cancer out nor destroys the lower sections and the roots of the tumor; it can only destroy the surface tissue on which it is applied, the top layer. When you have a skin cancer it is important to realize that the part you can actually see with the naked eye is merely the “tip of the iceberg,” a very small section of the tumor; there is a much larger section attached underneath that is growing into the tissue, unseen. If the cancer is not caught early enough this unseen portion will begin to form roots which allows the cancer to branch out and spread, becoming larger and deeper. Therefore, even though it may look as though the bloodroot salve killed the tumor and your skin is healing over the site, in reality the salve has only removed the top portion of the tumor; the remaining parts of the tumor left underneath will continue to develop and spread unseen beneath the healed surface, as noted in numerous case studies.5 This alone attests to the reality that bloodroot-based salves do not “draw out” a cancer – if they did, there would be no residual tumor underneath and there would be no need for Mohs surgery. Another mistaken belief is that bloodroot salves only affect cancer cells and not the healthy cells. This idea is based on in-vitro research which noted that some types of cancer cells were more affected by the sanguinarine (an alkaloid from the bloodroot) than healthy cells were.6 What is missed though is the fact that the same research shows that healthy cells in the study were also affected; the stronger the dose of sanguinarine, the more destructive it was to the healthy tissue as well as the cancerous tissue.7 In a separate analysis of two patients who used bloodroot salve as self-treatment, it was shown that the eschars shed during treatment revealed the death of both cancerous and healthy cells.8 This excess of cell death results in larger, deeper wounds which increase the risk of infection and formation of disfiguring scars. In one particular case study a 59 year old male with a diagnosed basal-cell carcinoma used a bloodroot salve which resulted in severe disfigurement of his face.9 In another case, a 42 year old male with advanced colon cancer used bloodroot salves which resulted in a wound so deep that the contents of his bowels were literally exiting the wound within eight days.10

There is also the mistaken belief that the salve is appropriate treatment for melanoma skin cancers. However, due to the tendency of melanomas to spread deeper and further than some other skin cancers it is not safe to assume that the salve can get it all, even with a properly performed Mohs surgery. Of the two documented cases of melanoma patients using only bloodroot salve to treat their cancers, both patients developed metastasis instead of a cure. In the one case an elderly woman refused conventional treatment on her diagnosed melanoma opting to use bloodroot salve as her sole treatment instead. Seven years later she presented with invasive metastasis (spreading of the cancer) which was found in her legs, scalp, lungs and liver.11 In the second case a middle-aged man began applying bloodroot salve to an undiagnosed melanoma over a period of several months; the lesion enlarged, deepened, and and became ulcerated, prompting him to finally visit a doctor who diagnosed the melanoma in an advanced stage.12

Because of these faulty beliefs many alternative practitioners will advise more liberal application of bloodroot salves than is safe to use. It doesn't take much salve to fall into overuse, and oftentimes patients are left with large, deep, debilitating wounds caused by the salve as healthy cells are obliterated. Unfortunately, this disfigurement happens very quickly, usually within just a few short days. Be smart, be cautious. I strongly recommend that bloodroot preparations be used only under the supervision of a licensed professional who is specifically trained in the use of these salves and Mohs surgery.


1The active substance in bloodroot is known as sanguinarine.
2A common Native American name for this plant is “puccoon”
3A Treatise on Cancer: And Its Treatment”, (Jesse W. Fell, 1857), pp. 55-61
4 Skin cancers may include: Basal cell, Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, Kaposi sarcoma, Melanoma, Merkel cell carcinoma, Sarcoma, Sebaceous gland carcinoma, and Squamous cell carcinoma. Precancerous skin conditions include Actinic keratosis and Bowen's disease.
5Consequences of Using Escharotic Agents as Primary Treatment for Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer, (McDaniel & Goldman, 2002).
6Differential Antiproliferative and Apoptotic Response of Sanguinarine for Cancer Cells vs. Normal Cells, (Ahmad et al, 2000)
7See also: The effect of chelerythrine on cell growth, apoptosis, and cell cycle in human normal and cancer cells in comparison with sanguinarine. (Malíková, et al 2006)
8 Dermatologic Surgery, Vol. 27, No.11, 2001, pp.975-978 (Brown, Goldstein, & Birkby)
9Escharotic and Other Botanical Agents for the Treatment of Skin Cancer: A Review (Jellinek & Maloney, 2005)
10An Internet Misadventure: Bloodroot Salve Toxicity, (Cienki & Zaret, 2010)
11 Application of black salve to a thin melanoma that subsequently progressed to metastatic melanoma: a case study (Sivyer, 2014)
12An Internet Misadventure: Bloodroot Salve Toxicity, (Cienki & Zaret, 2010)