While a natural solution to treat skin cancers like melanoma may sound tempting, a product called black salve often marketed for this purpose can actually be harmful. In fact, not only does black salve not cure skin cancer, it can also cause scarring and disfigurement, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
What is black salve?
Black salve is a topical escharotic, a corrosive salve that causes necrosis of the skin and then produces a thick, dry scab. Proponents of this treatment suggest that the salve kills the cancer cells. Some say it draws out the cancer from below the skin and kills the cancer and healthy skin grows back. Scientists don’t agree. There is limited clinical research to determine the effectiveness and safety of black salve, according to a review completed in 2017.
Black salve contains a number of botanical ingredients, such as bloodroot (sanguinarine), and other ingredients might include oleander, ginger, red clover, pokeroot, and turmeric depending on the manufacturer. It also contains zinc chloride, which is usually a synthesized product, according to the AAD.
Despite clinical evidence to the contrary, black salve is sometimes touted as a treatment for skin cancer; some websites go as far as calling it a cure. One website, selling it under the name Cansema, states, “By the very definition used by orthodox medicine, Cansema is empirically a proven cure for skin cancer for the majority of those who use the product according to our instructions.” Yet, they have a disclaimer on their site specifically written for people in the United States indicating that they do not claim to “prevent, treat, mitigate or cure such conditions.” Another website, Natural News, calls black salve the “magical cancer cure.”
What research tells us
Scientific literature does not back up the claim that black salve can treat or cure skin cancer. In the 2017 review, they researchers found there were two documented patients with melanoma who used black salve as a treatment. In both, the cancer metastasized (spread to other parts of the body).
Of the three people that used black salve to treat non-melanoma skin cancer, cancer persisted in two, and one no longer showed signs of cancer. For basal cell carcinoma (BCC), there were mixed results. A total of 14 people used black salve to treat BCC. Nine indicated the treatment was successful. Seven of these underwent excision or biopsy that confirmed there was no cancer. The other two were “cancer free” during six-month and 12-month follow-ups but did not undergo excision or biopsy to verify the cancer was gone.
Other patients did not experience the same types of results. One required Mohs surgery to remove the BCC from the scalp and nose. Another had BCC recurrence after using black salve. One had BCC tumors metastasize to the lymph nodes.
Black salve can cause scarring and disfigurement
Black salve can destroy the top layers of skin, but cancer can remain in the deeper layers. It is a myth that black salve “draws the cancer out.” Instead, it destroys skin tissue, according to the AAD.
Black salve destroys skin cells. You can experience severe burns, or it can leave behind an open wound that can become infected, the AAD says. The size of the wound depends on how much black salve is used and how large of an area you cover with the salve. Some people might be left with an open wound one inch in diameter.
Scarring depends on the location and the size of the affected area. According to the review completed in 2017, scarring was noted in 52 percent of people who used black salve, some with severe scarring that required further medical attention. Twenty percent of the people using black salve developed a deformity, some of which required reconstructive surgery of the nose. Only 8 percent of the cases report a “good or fair cosmetic outcome.” The researchers indicate these results suggest that “black salve has the potential to cause significant cosmetic harm.”
The importance of working with your doctor
Some people choose to use black salve because they want to treat their cancer on their own. Some falsely believe it must be safe because it has some natural ingredients. Some are worried about the cost of medical care and see this as a more affordable treatment option. The total costs, however, can’t be determined by what you pay for a tub of black salve. If you experience severe burning and need medical attention or have a sore that won’t heal, you will likely end up paying additional medical bills.
Treating skin cancer with black salve rather than seeing a doctor for treatment can also delay proper diagnosis and treatment, causing the skin cancer to spread. In a 2014 case study, a woman decided to treat her skin cancer with black salve instead of following her doctor’s recommendations. Several years later, her melanoma had spread to her lymph nodes, lungs, liver, scalp, and other subcutaneous tissues.
If you notice any changes in your skin, it is best to talk with a dermatologist right away. Your doctor can discuss the pros and cons of different treatment options and address financial concerns you may have.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.