When we get a cut or scrape nowadays, we reach for a tube of Bacitracin, Neosporin or some other expired antibiotic ointment found in the medicine cabinet.
But when I was a kid, the goto cure-all for everything was Merthiolate or Mercurochrome.
Both topical antiseptics burned upon application, and the only cure for that hellfire pain was Mom’s comforting blows upon the skin – at least until I got a little older and found that my
own blows could be equally as soothing.
Now I’m sure my mother, like all of the other mothers, had the best of intentions. It was the 1950s after all and the dawn of modern medicine. But it would take another 40 years before the good old FDA banned and stopped the sale of both products. Evidently, they were worried about the poisonous ingredients found in them: Thiomersal and Merbromin,
both which contain mercury. The FDA says mercury in these tinctures could be harmful to humans if left on the skin for extended periods or if ingested.
Extended periods?!? Really?!?
Getting painted with Mercurochrome or Merthiolate was the ultimate status symbol of our youth. It was our warpaint; our first tattoo. Our
burning, stinging badge of courage.
Of course, we would leave it for
as long as possible and continue
reapplying it until the scar had
disappeared completely – likely a
month or two, or three, later.
I played football in my freshman
year of high school, and whenever I got a cut or scratch, rather than hiding them beneath a BandAid, I would put a good slathering of the reddish brown stuff on my wounds and
when classmates (mainly girls) would ask about them, I would nonchalantly reply “football.”
It was my way of letting them know I was a macho jock. (In their minds, probably, a mucho jerk.)
For the past several years on Veterans Day, we’ve been getting our complimentary meal at Golden Corral where servings of steak rival many upscale restaurants. I was fantasizing
recently, that if Merthiolate were still available, I could swab it on any scars, cuts or scratches before entering the restaurant. Our usual server would ask, “What happened
to your arms, Mike?”
I would smile and say in my casual manner, “Vietnam.”