In the summer, anticipating midgie bites in Ardnamurchan (see Three Nights in Purgatory – A West Highland Odyssey) and with itchy insect bites from the garden giving me gyp, I developed a longing for the calamine lotion of my youth. I remembered the summers spent with splotches of pink dried on my arms and legs and the wonderful smell which tempted me to put the bottle to my head. The local Boots had none in stock but I got it in Morrisons. How disappointing it was then that the smell though recognisable was so faint compared with how I’d remembered it – and the lotion itself seemed so much weaker and more watery. Therese Coffey-style, I passed the bottle round the sufferers in our camping group though, along with cotton pads for dabbing, and we felt quite comforted.
Its active ingredients are calamine at 15% and zinc oxide at 5%. The name calamine comes from an ore of zinc lapis calaminaris in Latin but originally from the Greek cadmia. An ointment containing zinc oxide was in use in the first century CE, as noted by the Greek physician Pedianus Dioscorides in his book De materia medica. The pink colour comes from its 0.5% iron oxide though I can’t see that included on the list of ingredients.
As well as cooling sunburn and taking the sting out of insect bites, it’s also recommended for chickenpox, measles and eczema as it reduces inflammation and is antibacterial; as it evaporates, it soothes the itching. You can dab it on the t-zone of your face to reduce oiliness and there are umpteen YouTube videos of lassies extolling its cosmetic uses.
I remember we took great delight in a parody of the song made famous by Calum Kennedy called Cailin Mo Ruinsa but known in English as “Dearest My Own One”. It was written by Donald Ross of Ullapool and you can hear him sing it on YouTube; however there’s a good version there too by Charles Maclean with a photo of Ullapool in snowy-hilled conditions and it has the lyrics in both Gaelic and English. Anyway, the parody song had as its first line: “Calamine lotion is good for the skin”. Luckily, I can’t remember any more of it or who the singer was, but he’d adopted Calum’s unmistakeable singing style.
Compared with the disappointment of the calamine lotion smell, it was with real shock that I recently opened up a tube of modern Germolene to discover it was no longer pink. There’s a pink cross on the box and on the tube but the cream itself is now white, definitely not the “pale pink” described in the enclosed leaflet; on top of that, there’s hardly any smell. What’s going on? When I was a lassie, it came in a tin and it was pink with a strong distinctive smell from oil of wintergreen, I believe.
A question to the Quora website, asks “Why is pink Germolene no longer available in the UK?” and is answered by an Anthony Graham who explains that if you put white phenol ointment in a tin made of steel, the moisture in the ointment will interact with the tin and turn pink; this would cause complaints so to prevent these complaints, “the makers added a colour to mask the effect way back in the dark ages“. Cheeky lad! He went on to say that government advice was to discontinue using phenol in skin products for safety reasons though this seemed to be in high concentrations only; side effects are “discolouration to skin” all the way to “heart problems, lung and kidney damage” so maybe I should stop sniffing the tube.
Germolene was invented in 1925 by Sir William Henry Veno – the cough mixture man. He was born near Castle Douglas in 1866, the son of a gamekeeper, with Varney as his birth surname; he shot himself in 1933 while out shooting rabbits near his home in Cheshire. His product is now made by Bayer who bought it from Smithkline Beecham in 1999.
A question to the site Intelligent Answers on 27 August 2010 was “What have they done to Germolene?” This expat student had asked a visitor to bring some and was shocked to discover “It isn’t pink!” and “The smell is gone!” There were 20,528 readers of this question with 5 pages of responses all the way to 20 March 2015. The final comment includes the following: “if ever there was a test of the efficacy and harmlessness of a medication better than the millions of us who testify that we grew up smothered in the stuff without any side effects I cannot conceive of its form!”
Confusingly, you can still buy pink Germolene online, for example a 50g tube of Germolene Original Pink Antiseptic Ointment is available on ebay for £24.99! Putative buyers are told that they “buy directly from the manufacturer …. Not the standard white antiseptic version you get in the UK, this is the original pink antiseptic ointment”. I couldn’t work out where it was made, even after putting some of the language on the box through a Google search: it came up as “Mixed or Unknown” and suggested Norwegian or Czech or Slovenian.
For further (light) reading about Germolene, see https://cornishmarketing.co.uk/blog/pink-germolene-was-marketing-master-class/
TCP antiseptic liquid is a product that certainly hasn’t lost its pungent smell, though it’s been manufactured for more than a hundred years. It’s just as strong as I remember it and still hangs around you for hours it seems. Maybe it’s this pungent smell that makes us think it’s doing us good? In addition to soothing bites and stings and fighting infection, it’s recommended for sore throats and mouth ulcers but I don’t think I could put it anywhere near my gob. The company also produce a throat lozenge – but no thank you very much. And nor could I thole a Fisherman’s Friend.
Two other potions I remember from my childhood are iodine and bitter aloes. I was once forced to go to school with a bright purple forehead when my mother had insisted on painting me with iodine as I’d caught ringworm from the cows on holiday. The bitter aloes was dabbed on to my fingernails to try to stop me from biting them. It was only recently that I realised this “aloes” was the same as in aloe vera and it comes from the Arabic alloeh meaning a “shining, bitter substance”. The ancient Egyptians called it “the plant of immortality” and Cleopatra and Nefertiti used it as a cosmetic. Alexander the Great had it used for treating his soldiers’ wounds and its properties were familiar also in Mexico, in India, in China and Japan for thousands of years. The website of the Indian Journal of Dermatology also tells that the first reference in English to the aloe plant was in 1655 when it appeared in John Goodyew’s translation of De materia medica.
Back here in Bonnie Scotland, folk were making use of local plants to counteract the scourge of the midgies. I knew that bog myrtle had a good reputation for this but the times I’d tried it, although it had a satisfyingly medicinal smell, it wasn’t much cope for deterring them. The authors of Flora Celtica agree that while it’s been in fairly widespread use as a midge-repellent, the particular compounds of bog myrtle have not yet been scientifically identified. In the 1990s, Scotia Pharmaceuticals attempted to develop a midge-repellent from bog myrtle but “the project foundered”. Interestingly, the native American Potawatomi people in Wisconsin burned bog myrtle leaves to “produce a repellent smoke”.
Other local plants named in Flora Celtica in their “Repellent Plants” section include elder, feverfew, fleabane, wild garlic, wild mint and herb Robert. Another two of ‘our’ plants burned by native Americans for their repellent smoke were yarrow and rosebay willowherb – this latter one is a bit of a thug if you ask me so maybe it’s time we were burning it too or eating the young leaves.
Oats are recommended for soothing itchy skin by Nichola Fletcher in The Scottish Oats Bible; she says they also “help with babies’ nappy rash” and “can also be used for pets”. For her “Full-strength version”, you’ve to put 2oz (50g) or half a pint (300ml) into your bath and stay in it for 15 minutes. She warns about slipperyness so be careful or you’ll need a treatment for bruises or worse. Her “Everyday version” calls for a handful of rolled oats and some relaxing herbs such as lavender to be tied loosely into a muslin bag or similar, then you fasten the bag over the tap so that the hot water runs through it, give it a final squeeze and soak yourself for at least 10 minutes.
From bites and stings and itchiness, my thoughts turned to dealing with wounds and I remembered how folk used to use spiders’ webs and sphagnum moss to stop the bleeding and promote healing. We know the Ancient Greeks and Romans used the webs after they first irrigated the wound with vinegar and poured honey into it; the webs were used to seal the honey inside. They’re rich in Vitamin K and so help with blood clotting and they’re antiseptic and antifungal. The recommendation today is to remove any trapped flies / other dirt and use only “in dire scenarios” – but who knows when you might find yourself in one of those.
Charles Walker Cathcart who lived from 1853 to 1932 was a surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary who, during World War I, wrote an account of using sphagnum moss as a wound dressing. He was aware that this plant had been used in Germany from the 1880s and it had highly absorbent and antiseptic qualities. It contained iodine and promoted wound-healing. He had moss collected which was dried in Edinburgh and made into surgical dressings. Moss was then collected in other parts of Britain and Ireland and by 1916, the field dressings carried by soldiers in action contained it so they could seal minor wounds and try to prevent infection. The practice was discontinued after the war as fresh harvesting of moss was felt to be “difficult and undesirable” – as the harvesting of peat is seen to be nowadays. However, at the University of East London they’ve been researching the growing of moss on re-wetted lands as a “sustainable alternative to peat”.
No doubt Dr Finlay and his ilk would be sighing and shaking their heads on reading the above but I like to think that maybe Dr Cameron would acknowledge that some of the old methods still had their uses. And of course it’s all grist for The Loon’s mill and his belief that I’d be much happier living in the 1950s.