Petro-carbo: too toxic to be good to be true?
July 20, 2013 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about Petro-carbo, the miracle salve that's also a mystery (to me and evidently most of the Internet)!

An older lady at my workplace recently told me to purchase a tin of Petro-carbo for use on my mosquito bites, saying that one application would make them disappear within a day. I'm aggressively suspicious of easy solutions so I went home and did some googling, but I can't seem to find any information beyond the product pages of sellers and blogs of salesmen.

The Amazon reviews are glowing, but I'm wary to commit because a) many of the reviewers seem to be former Petro-carbo salesmen or relatives of salesmen, b) there are quite a few "my mom/pop/granddad/older relative used to use it and so I use it too"-style testimonials, c) I haven't read a single really negative review which in this day and age brings a most skeptical wrinkle to my brow, and d) Petro-carbo's active ingredient is Phenol, a factoid that got me a >:O??? face from my chemistry-competent friend.

More searching reveals that the generic form of Petro-carbo, carbolated petroleum jelly, is no longer widely available, and I have a hard time believing that such a supposedly incredible product would have been taken off the market without a really tremendous reason.

However: I am no chemist! I have also not played the field of topical medical remedies! Which is why I turn to you, denizens of Ask MetaFilter: can anyone talk about their experience with/knowledge about Petro-carbo and its efficacy/safety? Is it real? Is it a scam? Is it OK in small amounts? How much of it can I put on my face before my cheeks start peeling off? Desperately itchy bodies want to know!

posted by brieche to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Phenol is a topical analgesic not commonly used any more, so it might help the itchiness a bit.

With regards to the mosquitoes, there seems to be quite a lot of people that think that carbolic soap is good for repelling mosquitoes. Carbolic soap is a soap with phenol in it.
posted by demiurge at 8:45 PM on July 20, 2013

Best answer: Phenol is still used occasionally, eg, in Chloraseptic throat spray. In fact, it's about the same concentration, and safe enough to spray on the inside of the throat. So from a safety perspective, given the ingredients, you might have a reaction to, say, the essential oils or the phenol if you're sensitive, leading to dryer, itchy skin in the area of application.

I wouldn't slather it all on your face at once (in case it is super drying - teatree has that effect on some people in varying concentrations), and I personally wouldn't spend $12 on it when Benadryl ointment, Bactine, and good old calamine still exist for less. Whether or not it works well is probably a combination of personal chemistry and the phenol's effectiveness in that combination.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:27 PM on July 20, 2013

Best answer: In evaluating the enthusiastic claims, it might sort of help to know that their maker, Watkins, is an odd, old company that supplies seemingly everything, but is set up as an MLM scheme. The people selling it on Amazon are midlevel resellers who get discounts and incentives, and that might account for some of the glowingness of the reviews.

I once knew a guy whose father bought and sold Watkins and he had a bizarre, slavish devotion to their otherwise unremarkable products.
posted by Miko at 9:35 PM on July 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have a big tin of it in the medicine cabinet. It works as well on mosquito bites as any topical I've used.

(Though in all honesty I scratch the mosquito bites open which immediately stops the itching. Not the recommended solution.)
posted by 26.2 at 11:28 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Campho-Phenique also contains phenol, and we always had some in the medicine cabinet when I was a child. It does help stop the itch of mosquito bites and such. I know I got dabbed with it on the regular as a kid in the summertime and I have yet to grow a second head or anything.

This hot spoon remedy for bug-bite itch has been making the rounds of Pinterest lately, but I have no idea if it is effective. I'd be interested to know if you try it and it works.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:11 AM on July 21, 2013

That hot spoon thing should looks like a single-bite variant of the "get in the hottest shower you can stand for a couple minutes" remedy we use at our family cottage.
posted by Kreiger at 7:59 AM on July 21, 2013

I don't know anything about the product, but I can give you a statistic of one that if I just use my willpower to not scratch the mosquito bite for an hour or two, it stops itching and then it disappears by the next day. I am a person who gets 15 mosquito bites in the 20 minutes it takes to water the vegetable garden. Every day. They itch like crazy, but they go away within 10-12 hours all by themselves if I just leave them alone.

So I could write a testimonial for that product and it would mean exactly nothing about the chemical abilities of the product. I'm sure there are others like me.
posted by CathyG at 8:34 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's pretty funny, because my experience is that all mosquito bites are gone within a day (if you can keep from scratching them).

I have used phenol in creams, and it works okay as an analgesic. But I suspect it's mostly in the cream to make it smell medicine-y and get that placebo effect really cranking.

If you want to put this stuff to the test, ask your coworker for a little sample of the stuff. The next time you get two mosquito bites at about the same time, draw a circle around each with a ballpoint pen. Put this miracle cure on one of them, and any other analgesic cream on the other. (Or nothing, if you trust yourself to not scratch it.) Wait 24 hours and see what happens.

I find that Benadryl cream works pretty well on mosquito bites. So does analgesic cream (which usually contains some form of aspirin [salicylic acid] and can be found at most drug stores in the first aid section).
posted by ErikaB at 5:15 PM on July 21, 2013

Best answer: After working 7 summers at an outdoor overnight camp in the swamps of Jersey, I feel like an authority on mosquito bites and itching. When people say that just not scratching allows the bites to go away, there's some truth to that. Mosquito bites itch because of a histamine reaction. A lot of scratching can cause the body to release more histamines, which just causes more itching and more scratching in a vicious cycle.

There are a lot of things which will replace one sensation for another that are not as damaging as scratching (which can also open the skin and give a portal to other infections like impetigo, so it's definitely worth avoiding), like the hot spoon or hot shower treatment, or the method of using a fingernail to press a letter "X" into the skin deeply, or applying ice. But if you can resist scratching, bites do stop bothering you very shortly.

At the same time, that is a very easy thing to say, and not always as easy to do. Some people's reaction to mosquito bites is not that bad. Other people's bodies respond much more virulently to the same kinds of bites - raising large welts and itching painfully. This really is different person to person; the very worst reaction I ever saw was from an international staffer from Ireland who reacted so badly to bites he had to go to the ER and have a systemic antihistamine injected. Also, there are many different species of mosquito. So, some bites for some people are easy enough to ignore and tolerate. Other bites on other people can be dastardly in creating a compelling urge to scratch.

Anyway, chances are you don't need this exact salve to combat mosquito bites, but that it probably works as well as many other folk remedies that do the same thing - confuse your neurology by replacing the "itch" sensation with some other sensation, such as "sting," "cool," "burn," or "chill."
posted by Miko at 8:26 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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