Dimethylsulfoxide, DMSO: Snake Oil? Why or Why Not?

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An exciting discovery received the public’s attention during the 1960s. Researchers discovered an unlikely organic compound, dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO) might be useful in delivering medications safely through the skin.

The general public, in their enthusiasm, sometimes lay hold of a concept and run with it. Then, if there is negative publicity, the fickle public may – just as quickly – drop the idea.

This is well-illustrated in an article produced for the (former) Decoded Science website by author John A. Jaksich, entitled Potassium Bromate: Food Additive and Carcinogen?

Yet, was the rise and fall of DMSO popularity due to a fickle public, or was it due to an organizational structure of rigid rules that holds back advances, despite advantages the public might receive?

For example, drug approval testing procedure requires two groups of sufferers needing treatment. One group receives the actual medication. The other group receives, instead, a placebo. If the group treated with the medication shows a marked improvement over the placebo-treated group, the medication is a success. But – DMSO produces a garlic-like taste in the mouth that would be a dead giveaway as to who got what, which causes a problem with this sort of ‘blind’ study.

Discovering Dimethylsulfoxide

As can be seen, dimethylsulfoxide is a relatively simple molecule:


DMSO is an oxidized form of dimethylsulfide, CH₃–S–CH₃, which is the sulfur analog of dimethylether, CH₃–O–CH₃. The DMSO molecule was first synthesized in 1866. Today, labs can readily make this compound from the sulfide, a byproduct of the wood pulping industry. DMSO is an excellent solvent with most useful properties, but after being synthesized, it did not begin its rise to fame until nearly 100 years later.

DMSO: Rise to Fame

A medical team headed by Stanley Wallace Jacobs (around 1963) discovered an historically important property of DMSO. Dimethylsulfoxide penetrates skin without harm to the recipient (Curiously, dimethylsulfoxide has a median lethal dose (LD₅₀) about twice that of ethanol (drinking alcohol). That translates to its being twice as safe as drinking a beer!) and can be used to transport medications that do not absorb well alone.

Such a transdermal delivery system is popular even today – we call it “the patch.” The medication is formulated into the adhesive holding the patch in place. This method is, unfortunately, seriously limited – the patch can only work with substances whose molecules are small enough to be absorbed through the skin.

DMSO: Its Fall

What went wrong? Perhaps the best way to provide an answer to that question is to direct the reader’s attention to this embedded 60 Minutes video. Prepare to be “sucked in” to watching it in its entirety:

The video indicates that, despite great praise from many corners, the AMA editorialized against DMSO and the FDA refused to endorse it for general use. This video also highlights the controversy we might expect a drug with favorable testimonials in the treatment of arthritis, burns, mental illness, and baldness to generate.

Interviews of sufferers claiming amazing results unattainable through conventional treatments abound. Did these interviews represent sincere appraisal, or was the thought of appearing on a famous TV show the driving force? Whatever the case, DMSO use has been greatly diminished.

Just how far has DMSO fallen? Almost completely. Consider the second reference – Casewatch: Before the Board of Medical Examiners State of Oregon that relates the destruction of Stanley W. Jacobs’ efforts to promote his brainchild.

There are a couple of health issues for which the FDA allows DMSO, and Florida allows it to be used medicinally. Other than that – nothing.

The Author Asks

Am I convinced dimethylsulfoxide treatment should be reincarnated? As a scientist, I am familiar with publicly-endorsed health ‘cures.’ Some of them are the result of paranoid conspiracy theorists who feel medical practitioners and pharmaceutical companies do not wish to recognize miraculous cures because the companies are afraid they will lose money.

While some feel this way, we may deduce from the 60 Minutes video, there could be legitimate doubts concerning dimethylsulfoxide.

What do you think? Should DMSO be given a chance to rise, like the mythological phoenix, from the dust? Do the circumstances behind its removal warrant reconsideration? Nay, or yea?

Give us your perspective below, whether or not you have received favorable treatment with dimethylsulfoxide.

Note: You might also enjoy Do Black Snakes and Copperheads Crossbreed?


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