Médecin, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu’à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les antiseptiques d’antan?
[mes excuses à François Villon]
Back in our collective Snot-Nose Days, no medicine chest or first-aid kit was complete without a little bottle of antiseptic, something that could be daubed on those all-too-frequent scrapes and bruises to prevent them from becoming little hotbeds of purulence.
Television ads touted two of the more popular items: Bactine and Unguentine, two completely different products despite the common -ine suffix. Bactine, originally developed in postwar Germany by the same nice folks at Bayer that gave us aspirin and heroin, was (and still is) a liquid antiseptic containing benzalkonium chloride as the active germ-fighting ingredient and lidocaine for topical pain relief. Unguentine, as its name suggests, was (and is) an ointment containing camphor, phenol, tannic acid, and zinc oxide. I’m guessing that the phenol was the main bug-killer while camphor provided the pleasant medicinal aroma. Maybe they stuck the zinc oxide in so you could also slather it on your nose by way of a sunscreen.
We didn’t use either of those fancy-pants medicaments. No, not us. The Elisson clan was Old-School.
First in our antiseptical armamentarium was good old Tincture of Iodine, a solution of elemental iodine and sodium iodide in alcohol. Owing mainly to the alcohol, iodine tincture stung like a bastard when it was applied to an open wound. For that reason alone, most kids hated it... but the powerful halogen pong - the very definition of “antiseptic smell” - was a bonus.
People still use iodine as an antiseptic. It’s extremely effective, and newer formulations like Betadine that contain iodophors like povidone iodine (a complex of elemental iodine with polyvinylpyrrolidone) are not nearly as sting-y or stinky.
The other Big Gun in our ancient first-aid kits was a fluorescent pink medication: Merthiolate. Merthiolate is a trade name for sodium ethyl mercury thiosalicylate, AKA thiomersal (frequently spelled thimerosal in the United States), still used as a preservative in some vaccines... but no longer sold as a topical antiseptic in this country owing to concerns over the fact that it is an organomercury compound and thus potentially toxic if misused. A sister compound, Mercurochrome (dibromohydroxymercurifluorescein, AKA merbromin), was equally popular - and is now equally unavailable here.
My ancient bottle of Purex Tincture Merthiolate, still useful for the occasional cut or scrape.
Back in the day, nobody was worried about potential mercury poisoning - never mind that you would literally have to take a bath in Merthiolate for it to be toxic. Every scraped knee or skinned elbow was decorated with that familiar pink fluorescent color. It stung just like iodine when it was applied, although it didn’t have that iodiney funk. No matter. We kids wore the pink badge of courage proudly: It meant that we were out playing and getting banged up, rather than living mushroom-lives indoors, watching TV.
Not for us, that wimpy Bactine or prissy Unguentine. We glowed in the dark with our Merthiolated and Mercurochromed wounds.
As noted above you can’t buy that stuff now, at least not in the United States. But I still have a little bottle of Purex Tincture of Merthiolate squirreled away in my medicine cabinet. It’s probably somewhat north of 40 years old now, but there’s still some of that fluorescent pink crap in there... and I still daub it on my boo-boos, just for Old Times’ Sake.