What’s in Bag Balm, Anyway?

One of my friends swears that Bag Balm® is great for cuts, abrasions and dry skin on humans, not just in animals. Does it actually contain an antibiotic?

Bag Balm can

My own can of Bag Balm®

Five years ago, my parents were forced to downsize, and I was assigned the job of cleaning out their medicine cabinet. Picking up a faded green square can of Bag Balm, these words caught my eye:  “ACTIVE INGREDIENTS: 0.005% MERCURY FROM ETHYLATED MERCURY STEROLS, PETROLATUM, AND LANOLIN.”

Mercury? REALLY?  I checked my own can as soon as I got back home, and on the side of my can was: “ACTIVE INGREDIENTS: 8-HYDROXYQUINOLINE SULFATE 0.3% in a PETROLATUM, LANOLIN BASE.”

Could Bag Balm have had mercury in it? Yes, at one time it did. When John L. Norris purchased the formula in 1899 that became the recipe for Bag Balm, topical mercury compounds were commonly used as anti-infectives.  If you, like me, remember your mother putting red Mercurochrome® on your cuts, or its colorless cousin Merthiolate®, she was applying a mercury-based antiseptic to your “owie”.

Mercury compounds do not work very well as anti-infectives, but can be absorbed into your body and eventually cause toxicity, especially if applied to broken skin and used over a long period of time. In 1992 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement that declared that topical mercury compounds for topical use were neither safe nor effective as anti-infectives, and in 1998 the use of mercury compounds in topical products was banned outright by the FDA, removing the original formulas of Merthiolate® and Mercurochrome® from the shelves of pharmacies and grocery stores.

When did Bag Balm® change its formula from ethylated mercury to its current anti-infective, 8-hydroxyquinoline? I looked up the formula for Bag Balm® in the database Poisindex®, the same one used by poison centers throughout the United States, but the only formulation I found was the one with 8-hydroxyquinoline. To make sure, I called my local poison center, the Washington State Poison Center in north Seattle, who confirmed that as the only formulation listed for Bag Balm®.

So I went to the source. I called the Dairy Association Company, Inc, manufacturers of Bag Balm® in Lyndonville, Vermont, and asked them straight out, “When did you swap out the mercury for the 8-hydroxyquinoline? Did the FDA make you do it when they outlawed its use in 1998?”

According to Charles Allen, Vice President of the Dairy Association Company, the mercury was taken out of Bag Balm long before that – in 1972, to be exact. But what he said next really surprised me. “Dr. Achey, the anti-infective 8-hydroxyquinoline has been in our formulation all along. We just changed the labeling on the can.” Now, isn’t THAT interesting…

Bag Balm® was originally sold to dairy farmers to treat cow udders, keeping them from getting chapped and helping heal minor cuts and scrapes. Most of us recognize Bag Balm’s distinctive green square metal can in both the 10-ounce and 1-ounce sizes. The Dairy Association Company, Inc. continues to be family owned and manufactures and ships the ointment from their facility in Lyndonville, Vermont all over the world. Although it clearly states on the can Veterinary Use Only, many folks use it on their own cuts and chapped body parts with good results.

I used Bag Balm® on myself last year for a jagged cut on my ring finger. Despite soaking the gash in Epsom salts and non-prescription antibiotic ointments, it continued to swell, gradually getting more and more painful, and turning red. I called and made an appointment at my doctor for the following afternoon, but that night I decided to change my strategy. After all, what could I lose?

As a last resort, after soaking my very sore finger in Epsom salts one more time, I applied a liberal coating of Bag Balm® over it instead of the antibiotic ointment I had been using, then covered it with a bandage and went to bed. I wasn’t expecting much improvement, but when I got up the next morning I was totally astounded to find the cut nearly normal in color with no pain and barely any swelling left. It was all but completely healed.  Whatever is in that stuff, it worked. So, I checked out 8-hydroxyquinoline.

What is 8-hydroxyquinoline, anyway? It ‘s not quite an antibiotic, but something that may work even better. 8-hydroxyquinoline has had an excellent reputation as a topical anti-infective for many years and is listed as the active ingredient in liquid bandages such as New Skin®. The 19th edition of the United States Dispensatory published in 1907 described it as a “very powerful and well-regarded antiseptic”.

8-hydroxyquinoline works to stop the growth of bacteria and fungi by binding to certain trace minerals on the surface of the those organisms, creating a toxic compound that poisons it. Other compounds closely related to 8-hydroxyquinoline are currently being studied as weapons against “super-bug” bacteria that have developed resistance to multiple antibiotics.

Dr. Louise’s new book, Why Dogs Can’t Eat Chocolate: How Medicines Work and How YOU Can Take Them Safely is now available here.


46 Responses to “What’s in Bag Balm, Anyway?”

  1. patricia says:

    can i use bag balm on my chafing and itching between the legs from sweating because i sweat at night, im 59 and antifungal creams work sometimes, yeast infection pilss do not work, plus ive been in menopause now for a log long time, can u help me

    • Louise says:

      Bag Balm is an ointment, which helps if your skin is dry but traps moisture underneath where you apply it. Yeasts and fungus LOVE warm, dark and moist areas, such as feet and the area between your legs. Using an ointment helps moisturize dry skin, but can make moist, sweaty skin worse. Instead of ointment, using an antifungal powder daily can be VERY helpful because it keeps the area dry as it heals, which speeds healing and helps prevent it from coming back. Changing to a lightweight, loose fabric that wicks moisture away from your skin can also be helpful. Plain cotton panties keep you cooler than nylon, so you don’t sweat quite as much. If you haven’t tried an antifungal powder before, either Zeasorb Super Absorbant powder or Lotrimin powder used every day are good choices. Good luck!

    • hello says:

      take a probiotic to boost the creation of good bacteria that fight infection and the overgrowth of yeast

    • eduardo says:

      Bag Balm works better than anything else I’ve tried
      for chafing between legs……..It is amazing on cuts, dry skin and solves cracked feet

  2. Caroline says:

    Will 8-HYDROXYQUINOLINE SULFATE aggravate my sulfa allergy?

    • Louise Achey says:

      An allergy to sulfa usually means that you’ve reacted badly to a type of antibiotic called a sulfonamide, also called a “sulfa drug”. Lucky for you, 8-Hydroxyquinoline sulfate has the element sulfur in it but it is NOT a sulfa drug. You should be able to use it without worry.

  3. Lara says:

    There is a typo for the year in this section: “According to Charles Allen, Vice President of the Dairy Association Company, the mercury was taken out of Bag Balm long before that – in 197, to be exact. But what he said next really surprised me.” Is is supposed to be 1907? 1970?

  4. Janet says:

    Is it safe to use every day on arms and legs? Having a terrible time with dry skin and this is the only product that seems to help. I don’t mind the smell and it fades anyway.
    Thanks for any info. You can give.

    • Louise Achey says:

      If you find yourself using it nearly every day because your skin is so dry I would be careful not to use it on broken skin. Have you tried Aquaphor® or Eucerin® cream? They are very moisturizing, mostly because they are greasy and they can be used as often as you need to. Using a greasy product helps trap moisture in your skin. Another option (please don’t laugh) is plain Crisco®. I’m talking about the plain stuff though, not the butter flavored… Crisco® is hydrogenated vegetable oil, and it’s greasy but it actually soaks into your skin a little better than Bag Balm® does. And you can use it every day as often as you need to.
      If you have terribly dry skin, you can also help ease the dryness by treating your skin gently. Don’t scrub it with hot soap and water. Instead use cool water and mild soap, or no soap at all. After you shower or bathe, pat your skin only partly dry, then apply your moisturizing cream or ointment to trap moisture in your skin. This can really help with the dryness.
      Good luck!

  5. Evita F. says:

    Bag balm is really good for all kind of little minor injuries, scratches and I even remember those with mercury…well, science still comes up with new discoveries….

  6. lulu says:

    Can you use bag balm on your face as a moisturizer?

    • Louise Achey says:

      I guess you could use it, in a pinch. But I wouldn’t recommend using it every day on the thin skin of your face. And it is so occlusive that you might actually break out with pimples. What about Eucerin® Cream, or Aquaphor®? One favorite trick of mine for easing dry skin it using Cetaphil® cleanser instead of soap to wash your face and body. Don’t confuse Cetaphil® cleanser with the moisturizing lotion, the bottles look a lot alike. You can use it with water or just wipe it off without rinsing. I find that it doesn’t dry out your face and removes foundation and eye makeup without making your eyes sting.

  7. sandraboyce says:

    I have been fighting mr a on my legs for four years taking antibiotics and using steriod creams with temporary relief only for it to return only worse I have tried everything and getting tierd of the battle and cost I have seen all kinds of drs and they can’t heal this and then I remembered my grandmother using this on the farm and on us when we had cuts and rashes so I was in walgreens drug store to get some vasoline and I saw this green can of bag balm so I bought it .so wish me luck I’m going to try I will let u know what happens

  8. Penny says:

    All my life I have lived only 2 blocks from the bag balm company so I grew up using it, it is the best healing agent that money can buy. I use it from rashes to cuts to sunburns. And yes, it does work on moist sweaty skin. One 10 oz can lasts for a very long time. Been using bag balm for nearly 50 years and would never use anything else. Best ointment in the world in my opinion.

  9. Lisa says:

    I heard about this product after watching The Ex (2006), and I’m curious — since Bag Balm is intended for veterinary use, how safe is it to use on women’s nipples chapped from breast feeding?

    • Louise Achey says:

      I would avoid using it for that, because it contains petrolatum (also known as petroleum jelly) and 8-hydroxyquinoline sulfate which your infant could be swallowing. For cracked nipples we used to recommend lanolin (that dreadfully stinky, sticky stuff!) but these days I suggest plain (not the butter-flavored) Crisco®. It is just as moisturizing as Bag Balm® but because its’ just vegetable oil it is safe to use.

  10. twig dee says:

    I’ve had hemorrhoids removed a couple of years ago. Whatever tool was used to open me up still hasn’t healed to this day, so I decided to buy some Bag Balm and use it on my skin for healing of the hemorrhoidal scars & psoriasis as well. This Bag Balm will work for me.

  11. Melissa says:

    My hands crack split quite often. I use bag balm at night on my hands then put on disposable gloves and sleep in them. In the mornings the cracks on my fingers don’t hurt and they are healed in about 3 days. But my question is, my cat loves the stuff!! Can it hurt her?? I catch her licking the can. In the mornings before I put on my socks, I put bag balm on my heels and the back of my ankles so they don’t get “rusty” looking and she tries to lick the bag balm right out of the !! What is in this that makes her want it so badly?

    • Louise Achey says:

      She must be attracted by the smell. My Scottie dog Olive says, “Who knows what lurks in the mind of a cat?”, but she has no room to talk because she tries to lick off the lavendar scented calendula cream I use. Go figure.

  12. Marie-Ange says:

    Hi !
    I would like to know your opinion about petroleum jelly inside bag balm. Is this petroleum jelly refined ? I know that a lot of people use pj for their baby but is it really safe ?
    I would like to try bag balm to help my baby with his eczema but I don’t know if it’s a good idea.
    Thanks for your advice.

    • Louise Achey says:

      Petroleum jelly or petrolatum is extracted from coal and then separated out from other coal products at high temperatures. Most prescription ointments have petroleum as a main ingredient.

  13. amy says:

    can you use this if you are breast feeding

    • Louise Achey says:

      I advise avoiding using Bag Balm® on nipples while breast-feeding because there are chemicals in it and babies are VERY sensitive to chemicals. Instead, for cracked and sore nipples while breast-feeding I recommend using A & D Ointment, plain petrolatum (petroleum jelly) or Crisco® shortening instead. Good luck!

  14. barb says:

    can i use bag balm on my toe that had mild fungus?

    • Louise Achey says:

      Toenail fungus is very, very hard to get rid of. Even using powerful prescription antifungal medicines for months at a time to nuke the fungus, in many cases the darn stuff will show up again within 2 years. I doubt that the anti-infective in Bag Balm® will be strong enough to make your toenail fungus go away, and I would be careful not to use too much ointment because fungus loves moisture and using the ointment will trap moisture next to your skin. Great if you have dry skin, but also just what fungus LOVES.

  15. SinoraRay says:

    Can it be used on face for blackheads and pimples?

    • Louise Achey says:

      Unfortunately the antibacterial action of Bag Balm® comes with petrolatum, which is greasy. Using ointments on pimples usually makes them worse by trapping oil inside your pores. You get blackheads and pimples are from they way the bacteria living on your skin interact with the oil on your face. Putting more grease or oil on your face can make things worse.

  16. Bethany says:

    Ms. Louise,

    My 6 week old has some kind of infection and the doctors can’t figure out if it’s bacterial or viral. They think it’s Staph and I think it’s yeast caused by an allergic reaction to Milk Protein. My other daughter is allergic to dairy, so it’s no surprise to me. My cousin Karen advised me to use Bag Balm for the worst of diaper rashes and it works wonderfully. My daughter may also have a ZINC allergy. Whenever we’ve used cornstarch with ZINC in it, her butt gets more red. Maybe I’ll try just straight Cornstarch instead.

    How often would you use Bag Balm in a 24 hour period? Every diaper change? Obviously I would use very little.

    I want to start weening her off the hydrocortisone.



    • Louise Achey says:

      Most diaper rashes are one of two types: yeast infection or contact with an irritation, also known as contact dermatitis. Here’s how to tell the difference: take your baby’s diaper off and look inside the creases of her little legs. If the redness is mostly IN THE CREASES then you probably have yeast. Yeast loves moist, dark and warm areas, so if the diaper rash concentrates in your baby’s creases, it’s probably yeast. Cornstarch can feed a yeast infection, so I would not recommend using it. If the creases are spared (not red), you probably are not dealing with a yeast infection but with contact dermatitis, such as irritation from urine, feces, or a reaction to the perfume in a baby wipes.
      Sorry, but I would AVOID using Bag Balm® in a baby. The reason is their skin is so thin it can absorb chemicals and medicines that aren’t absorbed by skin that is fully developed. If the Bag Balm® helped, then petrolatum, petroleum jelly (Vaseline®) or Eucerin® cream can also work as well, and with less risk.
      Make sure you gently cleanse the skin completely and let it dry completely before putting on any cream or ointment. When doctors prescribe cream instead of ointment for yeast infections we would get faster results if I had mom put ointment on over top of the cream. This way when baby’s urinates it won’t “wash off” the yeast medicine in the cream. If you suspect a zinc allergy, be careful to read the ingredients before using an ointment because many diaper rash products contain zinc oxide. By the way, many “non-chemical” sunscreens also contain zinc oxide. Good luck.

  17. LLT says:

    i use bag balm on my feet and it’s the only thing that works on my super dry skin. awesome stuff – nothing else works as well.

  18. Bethany says:

    I thank god for bag balm everyday. After trying numerous scripts from the dr. For my psoriasis I finally broke down and listened to my best friend and bought a can and said what have I got to lose?! This has been the only thing to help it!!!! Bag balm and tea tree oil. I have tried to keep up with it and some spots are almost totally gone!!! I will probably be able to wear shorts this summer!!!!!!! The first time in years!!! Bag balm is a life savor!!!!

  19. Sarah dolan says:

    I believe in bag balm I have been using it on my self for quite a few years.
    I am 53 years old I have 4 children 9 grand children .
    Everyone knows that a baby every once in a while will get gaulded from diapers in the summer time .I was baby sitting my 10 month old grand daughter for my son and they had put the baby in the pool she was allergic to chlorine chemicles in the pool.
    He brought her to me she was so irrated and scalded red she was cranky and crying
    I took her put her in a Luke warm bath . Dried her got the can of Bag Balm and I rubbed it on her bottom 3 times that day .
    By the time he came and picked the baby up she was happy again.
    So was Grandmaw lol.
    So yes I do trust in Bag Balm.

    • Louise Achey says:

      That’s great. You rinsed off the irritant (chlorine) and then applied an ointment that protected her skin while it healed. If you didn’t happen to have any Bag Balm® available, there are other petrolatum based diaper rash remedies, even plain old Vaseline® which should work just as well since you are mainly protecting the inflamed skin from irritants in the diaper area, letting it heal.

  20. Karen Lamadrid says:

    Can this be used on dogs with itching problems during hot months

    • Louise Achey says:

      I can’t see how it could hurt, and it would be both soothing and reduce infection, especially if they scratched the area. Hopefully your dogs won’t immediately try to lick it off. Give it a try and let me know how it works.

  21. jackie says:

    Can I put Bag Balm on my cracked, bleeding & very dry lip?

    • Louise Achey says:

      Most FDA-approved products for cracked and chapped lips have petrolatum as their main ingredient. Because Bag Balm® has a petrolatum base, it should work as well as petrolatum/petroleum jelly (Vaseline®) to protect your lips from cracking and drying. However, it’s not approved for that use in humans so I cannot recommend it; also I would avoid using it where you could swallow it.

  22. Yolzy says:

    Hi, a man on a health forum mentioned he uses Bag Balm on his haemmaroids and anal fissures. Does it really help? Thanks

    • Louise Achey says:

      I don’t see why not. However, ANY other protectants useful for diaper rash should work just as well, as they all work at protecting the tender tissue from abrasion and irritants. Some examples of other options: zinc oxide ointment, zinc oxide paste, A and D ointment, petroleum jelly or petrolatum (Vaseline®).

  23. Jen says:

    Just started using bag balm after having a fire incident 2 weeks ago. 2nd degree burns over my entire right leg & right arm. Ran out of the silvadine cream from the doctors, someone gave me a nearly empty can of bag balm, thats about 20 years old. Day 3 using it, So far so good!

  24. Jen says:

    also i do wish it still had the mercury in it: growing up my mom used Mecurochrome on everything until you couldn’t buy it anymore. It healed bad cuts in a day or two. Poison or not, it worked great, i’d still use it

  25. BASIL says:

    Don’t use dangerous drugs for nail fungus! Bag Balm will kill it in two weeks. Daily application after bathing and it’s gone!

    • Louise Achey says:

      Boy, I sure would love to have this be true (sigh), but it’s not. I really hate to burst your bubble, but it just ain’t so! I’ll explain why in an upcoming post.

  26. Karen Sims says:

    Growing up this is all we used. Originally for cow utters in the winter when their teets became dry and cracked awsome for diaper rash and any injury

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