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The ointment that could be a ‘power healer’

Reading time: 12 minutes

On a Sunday evening in 1980, 70 million Americans switched their televisions on to 60 Minutes, and Mike Wallace presented a short documentary on a novel therapy touted as a “miracle cure” for a range of ailments. A young woman expected to spend life in a wheelchair after an accident was shown walking with supports after treatments and said she was “really excited with the results.” 

An elderly woman with crippling arthritis played piano effortlessly because, she said, of the liquid she massaged into her finger joints. Wallace interviewed a professional quarterback squirting about an inch of gel on his shoulder and rubbing it in, saying he would be “out of the game” if he didn’t use it.

Wallace also introduced a California housewife whose chronic nerve pain from whiplash was debilitating. The camera crew followed as she received an intravenous injection, and later topical solution, of a substance called dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and water from Stanley Jacob, a soft-spoken surgeon at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center and the chief proponent of DMSO. Viewers saw her apparently remarkable recovery with just a few doses of this inexpensive treatment.

At the time of airing, DMSO was banned for medical use in America except in Oregon and Florida, where it was available by prescription only. Wallace ended his segment by telling viewers that the following morning, a House Committee on Aging would begin inquiring why the substance was not available to all Americans.

The following week, Jacob’s office in Oregon and government offices in Washington, DC, were flooded with phone calls from people seeking appointments and demanding DMSO be made widely available.

People lined up to see Oregon and Florida doctors who prescribed DMSO and to visit DMSO clinics in Mexico that gave it intravenously. Mail-order houses offered toll-free numbers for purchasing industrial-grade DMSO, and many people were even using animal-grade DMSO prescribed for their pets to treat various ailments. 

The demand for DMSO was like that for the healing water of Lourdes. 

Origins of DMSO

DMSO was no supernatural substance, however. It was not even new. A byproduct of wood-pulp manufacture from tree lignin, it was first isolated more than a century earlier by a Russian scientist, Alexander Zaytsev. DMSO also occurs when some species of marine phytoplankton produce dimethyl sulfide, which is then oxidized to DMSO.

Because of its unique and potent solvent properties, isolated DMSO quickly became a staple in paint thinner and various chemical products. Sometime about the 1950s, veterinarians began experimenting with it, though this history is unclear.

Then about 1961, the story goes, Stanley Jacob, a surgery professor at Harvard School of Medicine before he became head of transplant surgery at the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center (now Oregon Health and Science University), was looking for a way to supercool animal organs for transplant experiments. Robert Herschler, a chemist at a paper company, gave him some DMSO.

Jacob got the clear, oily and odorless solvent on his fingers and soon noticed the distinct oystery taste in his mouth—a hallmark of the molecule and a sure sign of its rapid absorption into the body. It diffuses across membranes like water through sand without apparently harming them.

Varying versions of the history say Jacob (who died in 2015) noticed that a headache vanished when DMSO was absorbed through his skin or that he used it on a burn after a lab accident and noted a remarkable recovery. In any case, there is no question that Jacob, labeled the “father of DMSO” at the time, devoted the rest of his career to understanding and championing the powerful molecule.

He put DMSO to use in cryogenics because, mixed with water, it protects cells from injury by freezing. Since then, it has been a staple in freezing organs for transplant; cells and tissue for study; and eggs, sperm and embryos in in vitro fertilization clinics, although its assumed harmlessness in this role has recently come into question.

Jacob and his colleagues published animal research in the early 1960s pointing to DMSO’s unique and potent penetrating properties. They also highlighted its usefulness as a carrier molecule, local painkiller, and anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent; its diuretic and tranquilizing properties; and its ability to amplify the effects of other compounds.1

“The medical community has been brought to a high state of excitement and agitation by a series of extraordinary therapeutic reports by Jacob and his co-workers at the University of Oregon,” dermatologist Albert Kligman wrote in a 1965 Journal of the American Medical Association paper describing his own experiments—conducted on prisoners—confirming Jacob’s findings of DSMO’s deep penetration and carrier properties. “In the lay press, the therapeutic promises of dimethyl sulfoxide have merited the sobriquet ‘miracle drug.’  ”

A flurry of DMSO studies followed confirming DMSO’s unique properties and then testing it, primarily topically, with promising reports for acute musculoskeletal injuries, bursitis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, “intractable” post-surgical pain, post-amputation phantom pain, trigeminal nerve pain, post-mastectomy lymphedema, burns, headache, peripheral arterial disease, pulmonary emphysema, sinusitis, psychiatric disorders, inflammatory eye diseases and a host of skin conditions.

Many other early DMSO studies were promising, however, and some case reports were hard to write off as mere placebo effect. Cleveland Clinic doctors reported significant changes in the conditions of patients with scleroderma, for example, and noted DMSO was particularly effective in healing finger ulcers where blood supply was restricted.2 A 1967 report from veterinarians in Quebec, Canada, described (with photographs) the “fantastic” and rapid healing of wounds in horses’ legs using a DSMO solution.3

Enthusiasm dies out

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, was leery of DMSO. When animal studies giving DMSO intravenously in very large doses showed nearsightedness in dogs and rabbits, the agency banned its use for prescription and canceled clinical trials.

About the same time in 1965, the Wall Street Journal reported on a DMSO manufacturer’s warning that an Irish woman had died after using it to treat a sprained wrist. It’s the only death ever attributed to DMSO, and there was never an autopsy or report on the connection.

The report did not stop people from talking about DMSO or using it for the next nearly 20 years. In 1983, Sports Illustrated reported that use of DMSO was widespread and sales were soaring. It interviewed several athletes who used DMSO and swore by it.

Others were wary and said that what was good for horses for three or four years of racing might not prove good for a lifetime in humans. Some described DSMO as “mysterious”—effective at some times but not others.

One sports orthopedist called DMSO “spectacular” for soft-tissue sports injuries with the potential to “revolutionize” sports medicine. Another, from the same organization, called it “almost useless.”4

All agreed on the foul smell DMSO produced—“death breath,” one football player called it. Within minutes of applying DMSO to the skin, most users describe a taste of raw oysters in their mouths, as Dr Jacob did. Once it reaches the lungs, DMSO releases dimethyl sulfide, a gas that Wikipedia described as cabbage-smelling.

Some say the smell might explain why pharmaceutical companies were not enthusiastic—it’s tough to market a product that causes bad breath.

So, what happened to DMSO? More than four decades have passed, and there are more than 40,000 studies referencing it on PubMed. Why has almost nobody, including many doctors, even heard of DMSO?

In 1983 the FDA relaxed its ban on DMSO, and it was suddenly widely and cheaply available. Today, the agency has approved DMSO only to treat interstitial cystitis, an inflammatory bladder condition, but products containing it continue to enter the market, and some practitioners are using it for off-license treatments for a range of conditions. It is widely used in the biomedical industry, which has led to more discoveries about its effects on gene and protein expression, cell differentiation and death, oxidation, protection against radiation damage and more.

On the internet, you can still find people swearing DMSO has worked for them—for everything from arthritis, acne and athletic injuries to plantar fasciitis and skin cancer.

Although the FDA has relaxed the restrictions on clinical research of DMSO for the last 20 years, the initial enthusiasm for DMSO-derived drugs and its clinical use has not resurfaced. 

DMSO remains and continues to be a vital component of the most sophisticated modern therapeutic approaches, such as stem cell transplantation, cell therapy, and immunotherapy for cancer and genetic disorders. 

One of the main reasons the use of DMSO is undesirable commercially is economic. Since it is inexpensive and nonpatentable, pharmaceutical companies and medical doctors have no profit motive to pursue this therapeutic agent’s translational research and practical applications.

Safety record

Compared to pharmaceuticals used routinely for the same symptoms, DMSO has a remarkable safety record. It is the original non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID). The NSAIDs that followed DMSO cause tens of thousands of gastrointestinal events per year and thousands of deaths annually.5

However, apart from the Irish woman whose death was reported in 1965 and never confirmed as related to her use of DMSO, no associated deaths have been reported in over 40 years of widespread availability. And the nearsightedness that appeared with very high IV doses of DMSO in animals in the early ’60s has not been reported in any study in humans.

A 2018 review of DMSO safety looked at 109 studies with clinical patients and reported side effects. It concluded that DMSO’s adverse reactions are “mostly transient and mild” and that DMSO is safe, especially in low doses. 

Gastrointestinal symptoms including bad breath, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea lasted only a few minutes to hours and occurred mostly among those receiving higher doses of DMSO intravenously. Skin reactions, including rashes, itching, scaling and blistering, occurred mostly after topical treatments. Transient cardiac and respiratory reactions were reported as well, but these occurred only with intravenous delivery. Two out of 65 patients who were given eye drops with DMSO experienced a “severe” allergic reaction.6

Allergic reactions can be checked for by testing a small area on the inside of the elbow before applying it to a larger area. An initial burning sensation or transient itchiness or redness is expected, but if anything persists or welts, you should avoid using DMSO.

Because of its potent solvent power, DMSO binds to hundreds of other molecules and is known to increase the activity of drugs delivered in tandem with it. For that reason, it should not be taken with pharmaceuticals, including cortisone.

“DMSO passes through skin like a knife through butter,” says Dr Sarah Myhill, who adds DMSO at 20 percent concentrations to mineral and vitamin topical solutions in her naturopathic practice. “This means that any contaminants on the skin (cosmetics, chemicals, dirt) will be washed into the body.”

She advises applying DMSO to the skin only after a shower or bath and avoiding tattooed areas and areas around jewelry. “DMSO will affect tattoos and flush the metals of piercings into the body.”

Apart from including it in her own preparations, Myhill explains how you can use it yourself. She recommends mixing DMSO with water as a 40 percent solution (6 parts water to 4 parts DMSO) because higher concentrations may cause heat and redness. It can be applied topically up to four times daily.

Buy only pharmaceutical grade, 99.9 percent pure DMSO in a glass or resistant plastic bottle. At this concentration, DMSO will solidify below 18 °C, in which case it can be placed in warm water to liquify.

Since tap water often contains fluoride and other contaminants, use only distilled water for dilution since DMSO will carry these other molecules as well.

Not for pregnancy

A number of recent studies have shown that DMSO can destroy various cells. Though millions of babies have been conceived through IVF without significant brain damage,7 DMSO’s safety in IVF came into question with research showing it changes genetic expression in heart and liver tissues.8

A 2021 study of infant rats by University of California, Davis, researchers showed that short-term exposure to low concentrations of DMSO led to changes in behavioral and social preferences and in essential regulatory brain metabolites, raising concerns about its neurotoxicity.9

Since its effects on the fetus are not fully understood, it may be best to avoid using DMSO during pregnancy.

Uses of DMSO

DMSO has been a standard treatment for interstitial cystitis for nearly 50 years. In 2021, Japanese researchers working with scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied 49 patients given DMSO versus 47 given a placebo and confirmed earlier findings that it greatly improved symptoms and urination compared with a placebo and was safe.10 

After it was first used in the ’60s for arthritis, DMSO produced some impressive but conflicting experimental results. A 2016 study by researchers from the University of British Columbia demonstrated its anti-inflammatory actions in arthritis, but health agencies have yet to catch up with the science.11

Intracranial pressure—brain swelling—after head injury or stroke is a major cause of neurological damage. Studies in the ’80s showed DMSO lowered pressure on the brain in patients with head injuries when other drugs had failed. A 1990 pilot study of 10 patients with “closed head injuries” and high intracranial pressure reported that patients’ brain swelling reduced on the first day of treatment with DMSO and normalized by Day 6. Seven of the eight patients had little or no neurological deficits three months later. Remarkably, there has been no follow-up of these findings.12

A similar pilot study of 11 elderly ischemic stroke patients showed that 63 percent of those given a DMSO solution had improved one, three and six months later with no negative effects. Conversely, just 20 percent of those who underwent standard treatment showed improvement, and only at three months.13

Deep action on skin

Next to its use for neuromuscular conditions and injuries, DMSO has been noted for its effects on an array of skin conditions, including scleroderma (a potentially fatal autoimmune disease affecting skin, joints and vessels), amyloidosis, basal cell cancer, herpes simplex, pressure ulcers and fungal infections, which are mainly attributed to its action as a vigorous free radical scavenger.1

In 2002, however, researchers at the University of California at Irvine and the University of Edinburgh demonstrated that DMSO blocks infection by the herpes simplex virus—the virus that causes cold sores and can rarely cause encephalitis—in vitro by blocking its genetic expression.2 Remarkably, there has been little follow-up to this study and no mention of it in doctors’ reference guides.

Cancer therapy

While DMSO has been derided as a cancer therapy and federal agents prosecuted therapists years ago for advertising it as part of cancer treatment, that hasn’t stopped people from trying it.

“I had an early stage melanoma removed three years ago (my first skin cancer) and since then seem to have a precancerous brown spot frozen off or mole biopsy at every 6 month check up,” one woman commented online.  “I have used DMSO recently for other skin issues (poison ivy, mouth sore) and decided to try it on a new brown spot on my chest where another pre cancer brown spot was frozen off. It was an overnight success, still a little brown but no redness or sore.

“Unless I learn differently, I prefer using a dab of DMSO to be rid of pre cancers than dealing with the frozen sores, scrapes and biopsies.”

The FDA has adopted DMSO as a component of several approved cancer immune therapeutics, such as CAR T-cell therapy and the drug Mekinist (trametanib DMSO) for melanoma treatment.14

One study looked at 18 men with metastasized prostate cancer considered “palliative.” They were infused with a solution of DMSO and sodium bicarbonate that was reduced in concentration as their pain levels reduced. After 90 days, the patients showed “significant improvement in clinical symptoms, blood and biochemistry tests, and quality of life” without major side effects.15

Nine palliative patients with advanced cancers of the liver, gallbladder or bile ducts in another study were given infusions of DMSO and sodium bicarbonate plus oral supplements of S-adenosyl-L-methionine. Six months later, they all showed improved pain control, blood biochemical parameters and quality of life. Notably, for this highly fatal cancer, they were all still alive and their cancer had not progressed.16

Recent research has also pointed to DMSO’s ability to differentiate cancer cells17 and its potential ability to kill some cancer cells and slow their growth.18

Protection against side effects

Several studies report that for decades, DMSO has been a very effective treatment for extravasation—tissue injuries caused by cancer chemotherapy agents leaking out of  IV cannulas, leading to welling, ulceration and tissue death.19

Radiation protection

One of DMSO’s most astonishing properties is its ability to protect against radiation damage to DNA.20

Cancer radiotherapy is a common treatment, but side effects include mouth ulcers, which affect about 40 percent of cancer patients. Chinese researchers reported in 2018 that treatment with DMSO before radiation in mice protected cells from damage and may have even helped cells repair injury.21

DMSO also holds promise for male patients with cancer, such as testicular cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, who undergo radiation therapy. Side effects include infertility. Currently, nothing is used to protect male cancer patients against this potential injury, but other researchers from China reported last year that DMSO reduces DNA damage in mice exposed to radiation and protects the cells that generate sperm from dying, allowing sperm to recover. DMSO might also protect male cancer patients and others exposed to nuclear radiation.22

Clearly, there appear to be remarkable effects with DMSO and relatively few side effects. However, as with every drug on the market, Big Pharma’s disinterest comes down to money.

“I think it’s a fact of life that drug companies are not going to invest in something unless they think there’s some financial return,” the head of the FDA drug department said. Sadly, there’s never much money to be made with a drug that cures people.

Uses for eye diseases

By the time the FDA loosened clinical trial restrictions after seeing nearsightedness in animals given DMSO (a side effect never seen in humans), interest in DMSO had fizzled, according to a 2021 review of studies on its use in eye diseases.

The data that does exist, however, suggests the molecule is safe and has “remarkable properties” that could be useful in therapy for a wide range of eye conditions, from trauma and burns to autoimmune, inflammatory and infectious conditions. However, it is a “nonpatentable potential therapeutic agent that remains underexplored and ignored.”

The case of “The Toxic Lady”

In 1994, DMSO suddenly resurfaced in the media after a decade of near silence when it was blamed for a bizarre outbreak of fainting, nausea and illness in several emergency healthcare workers treating a woman with severe complications of late-stage cervical cancer.

Gloria Ramirez was reportedly treating her own cancer pain at home with DMSO and presented in cancer-related organ failure with oil on her skin and garlicky breath.

The first team investigating the healthcare workers’ fainting and vomiting concluded it was a case of “mass hysteria.” Later, other investigators theorized that because of kidney failure, dimethyl sulfoxide had built up in Ramirez’s body. She had stopped urinating. When she was oxygenated by paramedics, this may have converted some dimethyl sulfoxide to dimethyl sulfone.

Then, when she was given electrical shocks with a defibrillator, this secondary compound may have converted to dimethyl sulfate, an extremely toxic substance that might have explained the reactions of those treating her but did not appear in any analyses.1 

Ramirez, whose cause of death was cancer, unfortunately became known as “The Toxic Lady,” and DMSO was blamed though the investigators’ theory could not be proven and symptoms described in studies of dimethyl sulfate poisoning don’t match those of the healthcare workers who were treating Ramirez.2 

Main Article



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Cleve Clin Q, 1965; 32: 47–56


Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1967; 141(1): 490–2


JD Reed, “Is It a Miracle! Or Is It a Mirage?” April 20, 1981,


Am Fam Physician, 2000; 61(12): 3669–76


F1000Res, 2018; 7: 1746


JAMA, 2013; 310(1): 75–84; JAMA Psychiatry, 2022; 79(2): 133–42


Sci Rep, 2019; 9(1): 4641


Brain Behav, 2021; 11(5): e02146


Int J Urol, 2021; 28(5): 545–53


PLoS ONE, 2016; 11(3): e0152538


Eur J Clin Pharmacol, 1991; 40: 113–14


Neurol Res, 2002; 24(1): 73–80


Pharmaceutical Technology, 2016; 2016 supp(3): s30–35


J Pain Palliat Care Pharmacother, 2011; 25(4): 350–5


J Pain Palliat Care Pharmacother, 2014; 28(3): 206–11


Cancer Diagn Progn, 2023; 3(1): 1–8; Neoplasma, 1985; 32(6): 685–8


J Medical Discovery, 2020; 5(4): 1211


J Clin Oncol, 1988; 6(11): 1732–5; Drug Saf, 1995; 12(4): 245–55; J Clin Oncol, 1995; 13(11): 2851–5


Radiat Environ Biophys, 2019; 58(3): 417–424 


Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys, 2018; 102(5): 1577–89


Oxid Med Cell Longev, 2022; 2022: 9137812


Deep action on skin



Arch Dermatol Res, 2022; doi: 10.1007/s00403-022-02494-1


BMC Infect Dis, 2002; 2: 9


Uses for eye diseases



J Ocul Pharmacol Ther, 2021; 37(8): 441–51


The case of “The Toxic Lady”



Forensic Sci Int, 1997; 87(3): 219–37


Emergency Medicine Journal, 2005; 22: 878–9

Article Topics: Cancer, DMSO, Natural remedy, stroke
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