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Styptic Pencil: How Does It Work and Is It Safe?

What do you do when you cut yourself? Decades ago men used a styptic pencil to stop bleeding after shaving. What else can stop bleeding?

Have you ever heard of a styptic pencil? Most young people today have no idea what such a thing is. Even a lot of older people are clueless. First and foremost, it is not a writing instrument! It is sold to stop bleeding. The word “styptic” is defined by Meriam-Webster as “tending to contract or bind: ASTRINGENT, especially: tending to check bleeding.” The word styptic derives from the Greek word  styptikos (astringent) or styphein (to constrict).

Your great-grandfather was likely to have had a styptic pencil in his shaving kit. That’s because in those days, razors were not very sharp and often left nicks and cuts that would bleed. Touching a styptic pencil to the wound often stopped bleeding promptly.

A Reader Asks: What’s the Backstory on Styptic Pencils?

Q. Many decades ago, Dad used a styptic pencil to stop the bleeding when he’d cut his face shaving. Later on, he used an electric razor and didn’t need the pencil.

As I am now getting up in years, I have developed wrinkles and furrows on my face. I more frequently nick myself when I shave. Should I look for a styptic pencil? Does it really work? And also, is it safe for occasional use?

A. A styptic pencil or stick usually contains potassium aluminum sulfate, also known as alum. The same compound is also found in so-called natural crystal deodorants.

It causes blood to clot, so yes, it really does work. The strategy is usually to run the tip of the “pencil” under water so that the aluminum salts start to dissolve. If you then touch the wet pencil to the wound it will normally causes blood to clot. Within a few seconds the bleeding should cease.

Some people prefer to avoid aluminum, but occasional use should not pose a serious hazard. You can read more about some of the concerns of aluminum exposure at this link.

Other Ways to Stop Bleeding:

Several years ago we received this story about a styptic pencil from a visitor to this website:

Yesterday I cut my bottom lip shaving and it would not stop bleeding. I used a styptic pencil several times with no success. No way I could stop it.

“About a half hour later, my wife read your article about black pepper. She dampened a paper napkin, loaded it down with pepper and I put it on the cut. Five minutes later, I gently removed it and voila, no more bleeding. I went on to eat breakfast, had my cup of coffee and had no further problem the rest of the day.”

Black Pepper to Stop Bleeding:

We first heard about using black pepper to stop bleeding roughly 27 years ago. Nell contacted us to relate a story about her wood-carving brother-in-law, Wendell. The family was cruising through Yellowstone National Park in their RV.

They stopped at the Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria for lunch where Wendell grabbed a bunch of pepper packets. He told Nell that he always like to have some black pepper on hand in case of a cut. His carving buddies maintained that it was terrific if they had an accident.

That evening the family drove over some rough roads on the way to their campsite. When Wendell opened a cabinet to get down the dishes for dinner, a heavy mug hit him on the head and opened up a pretty big gash. It wasn’t deep, but it was bleeding like crazy. He told Nell to grab a packet of pepper from his shirt pocket and apply the pepper directly to the wound. Sure enough, it stopped bleeding promptly.

More Black Pepper Stories:

Since then we have heard from lots of readers that black pepper works amazingly well to stop bleeding. We can’t say that it is better than a styptic pencil in this regard, but many people swear by finely ground black pepper. One woman even insisted that black pepper saved her husband’s life. You can read this dramatic pepper story at this link. Trust me, it’s worth 3 minutes of your time to check it out.

That said, some people have taken us to task for this home remedy. They insist that black pepper might be contaminated with bacteria and could lead to infection.

The FDA has reported that many spices imported into the US are contaminated with all sorts of unpleasant stuff. According to an NPR interview with a spice buyer for McCormick & Company, all their spices are steam sterilized.

Ground Coffee Instead of a Styptic Pencil to Stop Bleeding:

Another odd remedy to stop bleeding involves coffee grounds. You can read some amazing stories at this link.

One listener to our radio show related that his German shepherd had been badly wounded by another dog in a remote part of Brazil. There was no way to get to a veterinarian. A local farmer recommended coffee grounds and it seemingly worked. The dog survived.

You can read more stories about home remedies for cuts (sage or cayenne pepper) and bruises (arnica gel) in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies at this link. We offer hundreds of treatments for common ailments.

One word of caution. Any serious cut or injury requires emergency medical treatment. Do not use a home remedy when dealing with a serious medical problem! Common sense must always prevail.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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