"Black Salve"

Hidden Cancer Cure Or Nightmare Alternative Medicine?

By Marc Braman, MD, MPH 
black liquid pouring from bottle 

Take Home:

A remedy known as "Black Salve" is reported by a fair number to have cured their skin cancers.  Then there are the stories of those who have experienced severe disfigurement or death from relying on it for treatment.  There is likely truth to both sides of the issue.

Personal Story of Success

A family member recently sent me a personal testimonial of success utilizing "black salve" to treat skin cancer -- melanoma in this case.  They said the patient was a long time personal friend, and the testimonial was written up by the friend's wife.  In the testimonial was a link to a YouTube video of this person's treatment, showing before, during, and after.  In many ways it looks and sounds good.  And so far the person reportedly has had a good result.  They have apparently even gotten copies of medical records with before and after biopsies to demonstrate that it worked (which I didn't review).  While on YouTube I found this other video of testimonials of success.  So, should we start putting "black salve" on our skin cancers, warts, etc and forsake traditional care?  Not so fast.

Common Theme

This treatment is actually almost identical in concept to some other "natural" treatments I had researched in the last year for warts.  The active substances in the wart treatment were from different plant sources than the "black salve", but did the same thing.  These substances are called "escharotics" because they produce an "eschar" -- a thick, dark or black scab, typically caused by a burn.  They are severely irritating to the skin or tissues.  They essentially create a chemical burn.  The basic way you deal with skin that has gone awry is "tissue destruction."  You may do it by freezing (liquid nitrogen), burning (hot metal, laser, radiation, etc.), chemical burning (compound W, caustic or corrosive agents, "black salve", etc.), or cutting it out (surgery).  "Black salve" apparently produces a chemical burn.

What Are We Really Talking About?

This is really the first and most fundamental question.  The term "black salve" really doesn't tell us much of anything.  I could take a bunch of almost anything and burn it until black and slimy and it would be "black salve".  What is referred to in this context is a variety of salves based on zinc chloride, a corrosive compound, and a variety of herbs.  The herbs used seem to change from one product to another, but the zinc chloride is consistently present.  One of the most popular brand name products is Cansema®.  What is particularly interesting is that "black salve" is perceived as being very "natural" because of the herbal mix, but it's main active ingredient -- the only one consistent across products -- is a standard, acidic chemical compound.  Some of the herbs used in the mix may help -- we don't know.  Some think they keep it from drying out too fast.
Zinc chloride is considered a hazardous material.  When mixed with water is makes a strongly acidic solution.  Is has the very interesting property of dissolving starch, silk, and cellulose, and is therefore used in the textile industry.  But they cannot use standard paper filters in the process because paper is composed of cellulose. 


Cansema® is listed by the FDA as a fake cancer "cure" that consumers should avoid.  Cases are reported not only of "cure" or success with general "black salve", but also of significant disfigurement, complications, and death due to lack of standard treatment.  Yet, you can still buy it online.  The makers of Cansema® have moved to Equador after the FDA shut them down.

Clarifying The Facts In Testimonials

It is important to deconstruct some of the specifics mentioned in the testimonials -- or false ideas will get perpetuated.
--- "Drawing" effect.  The salve is talked about as "drawing out" the cancer.  I find or see no evidence that there is anything along these lines occurring.  Cancer cells are not capable of detaching themselves from their buddies, blood supply, etc., and moving en masse like a herd of zombies out through all the normal tissue in the direction of the salve.  Tissue is being destroyed, the body must distinguish between tissue it can support and the dead stuff it must part with to be able to heal.
--- "Immune system activation".  The first video says that the oozing occurring after application of the "black salve" is immune system activation.  I find no evidence of this and see no reason to believe this is occurring.  The body has had a corrosive, acidic chemical put into an open wound.  It is normal for it to ooze in response to this injury.  If it did actually stimulate the immune system to attack the kind of cancer involved -- so that the body would then destroy the same kind of cancer found in the body elsewhere -- this would be a phenomenal breakthrough.
--- "Works Only On Cancer".  This claim seems almost magical.  It would defy most of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.  Having said that, if a skin cancer has created an open wound, you will get more chemical reaction putting a corrosive compound essentially "into" raw tissue that doesn't have normal skin protection.  There are also some characteristics of cancer cells or tumors that make them more susceptible to tissue destruction -- from any source.  Normal tissue can function more normally when it comes to survival and repair.  If you can find the right concentration of salve, you could well see more damage to abnormal than to normal tissue.  However, that is a big "if"!
--- Certain Reactions Indicate Cancer.  Along the same lines is the claim that certain reactions are diagnostic for cancer.  This is quite a stretch.  I wouldn't completely rule out some truth to this, but it is much more likely that certain reactions occur with increased penetration through the protective layers of skin -- which may be a result of cancer -- or may not. 


What we are really talking about with "black salve" is a corrosive chemical compound with variations of herbs mixed in to make a paste or salve.  I have no doubt that it has gotten rid of many people's skin cancers that were always only superficial and had not spread throughout their body.  Might this not be a reasonable treatment alternative?  Sure -- if it had consistent ingredients, known to have certain levels of effectiveness relative to problems, were applied properly to minimize risk, and people had adequate care for the wounds created.  The problem is that none of these, and other safety measures, are present as things are today.  Understand that we are talking about a strong acid paste.  It may be relatively cheap.  It may work for skin cancers.  It may burn your nose off.  It won't treat anything deeper than the tissue you see it destroy.
I look forward to when we can develop some of the other institute functions and enable people to report in on their experience in a usable way (not just testimonials).  We will then get a much clearer understanding of how many are being helped compared to how many are being harmed by which products. 
(Just to be clear for liability reasons: I am NOT recommending that you use "black salve" products.  The purpose of this, and other articles on this website, is to inform -- not make individual medical recommendations.  Please act responsibly and seek appropriate medical help.)

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Written 9/5/11.