The story of dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, is an unusual one. A by-product of the paper-making process, it was discovered in Germany in the late 19th century.
The colorless liquid gained notoriety for its ability to penetrate the skin and other biological membranes. Because of this, scientists discovered that they could use DMSO as a transportation device for small molecules to pass through the skin. These were the humble beginnings of what writer Maya Muir described as "one of the most studied but least understood pharmaceutical agents of our time.”
A Coup for Dermatology
While research continued for years after its discovery, it didn't become a hot topic outside of the medical community until the 1960s. Because of its ability to penetrate the skin, doctors began using it to treat cases of skin inflammation and diseases like scleroderma, a rare disorder that causes the skin to harden.
There is also evidence that DMSO can effectively treat tissue death when people with cancer experience skin necrosis. It can also help prevent severe ulcers, another dramatic side effect of the anticancer drug mitomycin C. Wound healing was another area where DMSO has proved to be effective.
Other medical studies on DMSO have gone beyond the dermatological field. Scientists say it has potential in fields like cancer, diabetic ulcers, gastritis, herpes, arthritis, and closed head trauma, to name a few. But if DMSO is potentially effective in all these areas, why is it so scarcely used in the U.S.?
Not So Good for Your Eyes
Things came to a halt for DMSO in the U.S. in 1965, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became concerned with experiments on animals that suggested DMSO might cause damage to the eyes.
In 1978, the FDA officially approved the use of DMSO in humans for a single purpose: to treat interstitial cystitis, a rare bladder condition. This condition causes inflammation in the bladder. To treat it, doctors usually either inject DMSO into the bloodstream, or flush it directly into the bladder via catheter. It’s also available in pill form and as a topical lotion.
While it’s approved for other uses in dogs and horses, bladder inflammation remains the only approved use of DMSO in humans.
Are There Any Other Side Effects?
Reported side effects from DMSO tend to be minor, but doctors agree that you should be cautious when it comes to topical lotions. Absorbing it through the skin can cause it to interact and interfere with other medications, and can cause unhealthy substances to be absorbed along with the DSMO.
The most reported side effect of DMSO is more of a nuisance (especially if you have a date lined up) than a concern. DMSO can cause a strong garlic-like taste in the patient’s mouth for several hours after application. Patients might even give off a garlic-like odor from their skin for up to 72 hours.
DMSO has had mixed results as an anticancer therapeutic treatment. Based on various tests, the American Cancer Society does not recommend it as an effective cancer treatment for humans.
Don't think this is the last you'll hear about DMSO. Very early evidence suggests that it might be effective in treating Alzheimer's disease, a condition with no known cure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that Alzheimer’s will affect nearly 14 million Americans by 2050. There will be DMSO testing for years to come.