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Etnomedicine and antibacterial actives: a medieval Saxon remedy

I am very glad we have antibiotics and antivirals and vaccines. I would not have liked to live in medieval England when the Saxons (and Merlin?) were concocting remedies for various ills. In a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon medical text called Bald’s Leechbook you will find a remedy for eye styes, an infection of the oil gland in the eyelid.

Bald’s eyesalve was made of cow’s bile, wine, garlic, and onions,  and was meant to cure styes.  Did it work? And, if it did, why and how?

It works, as a group of scientists found when they made the salve with garlic, onions, white wine (from the area) and bovine bile salts.

You are familiar, of course, with garlic and onion, and you may also know that they contain active chemicals that are antibacterial. Wine is a good solvent for the extraction of chemicals. But what about bile salts?  Bile is complicated, a yellow-green aqueous liquid that contains 70% bile salts, and other components, it is made by liver hepatocytes and stored in the gall bladder). The authors used a mix of bile salts, glycine and taurine conjugates of deoxycholic acid.

Does this mean that you should go out and get yourself some ox bile? No! And no need to apply a smelly concoction of garlic and onion on your eye. But it is a reminder that a complex mix may work better against a bacterial infection than a single pure antibiotic. An important component of the activity is the disruption of the biofilm that many bacteria can make and protects them from the antibacterial armamentarium humans have at their disposal.

What is the role of the bile salts? They are surfactants (detergents) that have antibacterial activity but, more importantly, they can disrupt bacterial biofilms.

Skin Actives we know very well about the advantage of using multiple actives: you need less of each, decreasing the chances of side effects, and they can work very well together, like they do in our acne control products.

As for bacterial biofilms, I am not a fan of ox bile, but we use other biofilm disruptors, like EGCG and ellagic acid.

Acne control products:

Zit Ender

Flawless kit



Furner-Pardoe, J., Anonye, B.O., Cain, R. et al. (2020) Anti-biofilm efficacy of a medieval treatment for bacterial infection requires the combination of multiple ingredients. Sci Rep 10, 12687

Cremers, C.M., D Knoefler, V Vitvitsky, R. Banerjee, U. Jakob (2014) Bile salts act as effective protein-unfolding agents and instigators of disulfide stress in vivo
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.  111: E1610–E1619. Published online 2014 Apr 4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1401941111

DISCLAIMER: These claims have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease.

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