Low-tech Antiseptics, part 2

The importance of keeping wounds clean is something we take for granted now, and we have all the benefits of science and industrial production to provide us with cheap and effective antiseptics. These posts examine some reasonable options for the doctors and healers of a realistic fantasy world to have at hand.

Part 1 discussed salt and sodium bicarbonate.


Your brave character uncorks that vodka bottle with his teeth and pours it over his wound. Problem solved? Check the label first.

Surgical-grade ethanol runs from 60-90% alcohol by volume. In drinking terms, that’s 120-180 proof. Most of the stuff in the liquor cabinet tops out at 100 proof — though you can get brandies that are 120 proof and the infamous Everclear is available in 151 and 190 proof.

Simple distillation dates from the first century AD, in Europe, and methods gradually improved during the Renaissance and really took off in the 19th century. So the good news is that it’s not unreasonable for a fantasy world to know how to distill alcohol from fermented mash.

The bad news is that simple distillation (from the most primitive forms up to more complex but still low-tech moonshine stills) will not get you pure enough alcohol to be really effective as an antiseptic. For that, you need a reflux column. (For further information, Google reflex column stills and their use by backyard fuel-alcohol producers.)

Whether this is feasible in your fantasy world (the metallurgy skills, the safety issues) is for you to determine. But once you have that worked out and your healers have access to high-proof alcohol, they can be sterilizing wounds and mixing cocktails at the same time, right? Hopefully the producers didn’t opt for fermenting cheaper stuff like sawdust instead of grain (wood alcohol = methanol = blindness) and hopefully they didn’t build their still out of soft, easy-to-work lead

What about rubbing alcohol? That would be isopropyl alcohol, and it’s a good antiseptic but I haven’t been able to find a way to produce it without industrial chemistry. If you find something, I’d be curious to know.


All of the above — salt, natron, and alcohol — are by no means as effective as modern antibiotics or even the stronger antiseptics like iodine or phenol-based compounds. How you use them in a story is your call, but they are not magic bullets that will realistically bring a character back from death’s door.

If you’re looking for a semi-plausible magic bullet, though: terpenes.

Terpenes are a major component of resin and turpentine (distilled resin) — both important compounds with long, pre-industrial histories. Turpentine itself was used medicinally (and still is, actually) for jobs which included wound-cleansing. (Also de-worming, though I can’t imagine drinking the stuff.) Another natural, low-tech antiseptic containing terpenes is tea tree oil.

Terpenes are compounds synthesized by trees, mostly (some bugs too), particularly conifers (cedar, firs, junipers, etc.). If one wanted a “magic bullet” healing compound in one’s fantasy world, an exotic local tree producing a terpene-packed resin could fit the bill. It can be as scarce and hard to find as the story requires, or common and widely used. Maybe it requires processing — distilling, fermenting, mixing with something else.


So: four ways to help your characters survive their adventures without invoking magic, deities, or doing something as nonsensical as boiling wine. (I wrote a little rant that started all this. It seems to have attracted some eyeballs.)

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