Dimethyl sulfoxide

Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) is an organosulfur compound with the formula (CH3)2SO. This colorless liquid is an important polar aprotic solvent that dissolves both polar and nonpolar compounds and is miscible in a wide range of organic solvents as well as water. It has a relatively high boiling point. DMSO has the unusual property that many individuals perceive a garlic-like taste in the mouth after contact with the skin.

In terms of chemical structure, the molecule has idealized Cs symmetry. It has a trigonal pyramidal molecular geometry consistent with other three-coordinate S(IV) compounds, with a nonbonded electron pair on the approximately tetrahedral sulfur atom.


Use of DMSO in medicine dates from around 1963, when an Oregon Health & Science University Medical School team, headed by Stanley Jacob, discovered it could penetrate the skin and other membranes without damaging them and could carry other compounds into a biological system. In medicine, DMSO is predominantly used as a topical analgesic, a vehicle for topical application of pharmaceuticals, as an anti-inflammatory, and an antioxidant. Because DMSO increases the rate of absorption of some compounds through biological tissues, including skin, it is used in some transdermal drug delivery systems. Its effect may be enhanced with the addition of EDTA. It is frequently compounded with antifungal medications, enabling them to penetrate not just skin but also toenails and fingernails.

DMSO has been examined for the treatment of numerous conditions and ailments, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved its use only for the symptomatic relief of patients with interstitial cystitis. A 1978 study concluded that DMSO brought significant relief to the majority of the 213 patients with inflammatory genitourinary disorders that were studied. The authors recommended DMSO for genitourinary inflammatory conditions not caused by infection or tumor in which symptoms were severe or patients failed to respond to conventional therapy.

A gel containing DMSO, dexpanthenol, and heparin, is sold in Germany and eastern Europe (commercialized under the Dolobene brand) for topical use in sprains, tendinitis, and local inflammation.

In interventional radiology, DMSO is used as a solvent for ethylene-vinyl alcohol in the Onyx liquid embolic agent, which is used in embolization, the therapeutic occlusion of blood vessels.

In medical research, DMSO is often used as a drug vehicle in vivo and in vitro experiments. However, when a researcher is unaware of its pleiotropic effects, or when the control groups are not carefully planned, bias can occur; an effect of DMSO can be falsely attributed to the drug. For example, even a very low dose of DMSO has a powerful protective effect against paracetamol (acetaminophen)-induced liver injury in mice.

In cryobiology DMSO has been used as a cryoprotectant and is still an important constituent of cryoprotectant vitrification mixtures used to preserve organs, tissues, and cell suspensions. Without it, up to 90% of frozen cells will become inactive. It is particularly important in the freezing and long-term storage of embryonic stem cells and hematopoietic stem cells, which are often frozen in a mixture of 10% DMSO, a freezing medium, and 30% fetal bovine serum. In the cryogenic freezing of heteroploid cell lines (MDCK, VERO, etc.) a mixture of 10% DMSO with 90% EMEM (70% EMEM + 30% fetal bovine serum + antibiotic mixture) is used. As part of an autologous bone marrow transplant the DMSO is re-infused along with the patient’s own hematopoietic stem cells.

DMSO is metabolized by disproportionation to dimethyl sulfide and dimethyl sulfone. It is subject to renal and pulmonary excretion. A possible side effect of DMSO is therefore elevated blood dimethyl sulfide, which may cause a blood-borne halitosis symptom.

Alternative medicine

DMSO is marketed as alternative medicine. Its popularity as an alternative cure is stated to stem from a 60 Minutes documentary featuring an early proponent. However, DMSO is an ingredient in some products listed by the U.S. FDA as fake cancer cures and the FDA has had a running battle with distributors. One such distributor is Mildred Miller, who promoted DMSO for a variety of disorders and was consequently convicted of Medicare fraud.

The use of DMSO as an alternative treatment for cancer is of particular concern, as it has been shown to interfere with a variety of chemotherapy drugs, including cisplatin, carboplatin, and oxaliplatin. There is insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that DMSO has any effect, and most sources agree that its history of side effects when tested warrants caution when using it as a dietary supplement, for which it is marketed heavily with the usual disclaimer.

Veterinary medicine

DMSO is commonly used in veterinary medicine as a liniment for horses, alone or in combination with other ingredients. In the latter case, often, the intended function of the DMSO is as a solvent, to carry the other ingredients across the skin. Also in horses, DMSO is used intravenously, again alone or in combination with other drugs. It is used alone for the treatment of increased intracranial pressure and/or cerebral edema in horses.