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Other common name(s): Rimso-50

Scientific/medical name(s): dimethyl sulfoxide, dimethylsulfoxide


Dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, is an industrial solvent that is a by-product of making paper. It has been promoted as an alternative cancer treatment since the 1960s.


Available scientific evidence does not suggest that DMSO is effective in treating cancer in humans. It is being studied as a drug carrier to increase the effectiveness of some chemotherapy drugs currently used to treat bladder cancer. The only use for which DMSO is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is for the treatment of a type of bladder inflammation known as interstitial cystitis.

How is it promoted for use?

Supporters say that DMSO can cause cancerous cells to become noncancerous, or benign, and can slow or stop the progress of cancer in the bladder, colon, ovary, breast, and skin. Some claim that it is useful in treating leukemia, and it has also been used as a part of some metabolic cancer therapies (see Metabolic Therapy). Some people have promoted DMSO as preventing cancer. They claim it works by "cleaning" cell membranes and decreasing the effect of cancer-causing substances.

Some researchers believe that DMSO can be used with certain chemotherapy drugs to make them more effective. DMSO is also promoted to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments in people with cancer. DMSO can supposedly boost the immune system and scavenge free radicals caused by these treatments. In addition, it has been promoted as a way to control the "withdrawal symptoms" felt by cancer patients when taken off conventional cancer treatment.

DMSO is often used as a cream or ointment applied to the skin to reduce pain, decrease swelling, treat autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, and promote healing in wounds and burns.

What does it involve?

DMSO is medically approved in the United States only for the treatment of interstitial cystitis, a type of inflammation of the bladder. When used for this condition, a 50% solution of DMSO is instilled into the bladder through a catheter and left there for about 15 minutes.

As an alternative therapy for cancer, DMSO is available through many health food stores, mail-order outlets, and on the Internet. It is typically applied to the skin in a gel, liquid, or roll-on form. It can also be taken by mouth or as an intravenous injection, in many cases along with other drugs. Strengths and dosages vary widely.

What is the history behind it?

DMSO was first discovered in the mid- to late nineteenth century and has been used as an industrial solvent for more than a hundred years. In the 1950s, it was discovered that DMSO could protect cells from the damage of freezing. In the 1960s, Dr. Stanley Jacob, one of the main proponents of DMSO, began to study other medicinal properties of the substance. In 1965, clinical trials of DMSO were stopped due to questions about its safety. However, in the 1970s, DMSO was approved for use as an anti-inflammatory treatment in dogs and horses and as a prescription drug for a type of bladder inflammation in humans.

What is the evidence?

Tests of DMSO for treating human illness began in the mid-1960s but were stopped because of questions of safety, mainly dealing with a possible ability to cause damage to the eye. Early research did not find that DMSO was useful in the treatment of cancer. However, more recent research in rats has shown that DMSO may deserve further study as a drug carrier to enhance the effectiveness of some chemotherapy drugs for the treatment of bladder cancer.

In a 1988 laboratory study, the addition of 4% DMSO to the chemotherapy drugs most often used in the bladder did not kill more cancer cells. However, animal studies done since that time have found that adding DMSO to some chemotherapy drugs helped the bladder to absorb them better. Further studies are needed to learn whether the results apply to humans.

DMSO is a common chemical used in the laboratory. Small amounts of DMSO are sometimes used to dissolve drugs and other chemicals that do not dissolve well in water, so that these substances can be tested in animals or in experiments with cells growing in laboratory dishes. However, in those cases, it is the drug, not DMSO, that acts in the body. DMSO is sometimes used in laboratory studies to help cancer cells mature and/or differentiate (to acquire some characteristics of noncancerous cells). This is one reason that is used to support DMSO as an anti-cancer agent. However, the concentrations typically used in the laboratory would be highly toxic or even fatal to a human. Some researches have continued laboratory studies to understand how high concentrations of DMSO might influence characteristics of cancer cells. In a 2007 review, the scientists describe how their laboratory studies of DMSO led to discovery of another substance that turned out to be useful as a chemotherapy drug and has already been approved by the FDA.

Research has shown that DMSO appears to have some effect in reducing pain, swelling, and inflammation, as well as some other properties that may make it useful in treating certain conditions. More testing is needed to show it is safe and effective for these uses in people.

DMSO is approved by the FDA to treat a single type of bladder disorder (interstitial cystitis) in humans and as a veterinary treatment to reduce swelling in horses and dogs.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

This substance may not have been thoroughly tested to find out how it interacts with medicines, foods, or dietary supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Early clinical trials with DMSO were stopped because of questions about its safety, especially its ability to harm the eye. The most commonly reported side effects include headaches and burning and itching on contact with the skin. It can also cause a powerful garlic-like taste and odor on the breath and skin. Strong allergic reactions have been reported. In high concentrations, DMSO can be fatal to humans. Industrial-grade DMSO is sometimes contaminated with other substances. DMSO can cause contaminants, toxins, and medicines to be absorbed through the skin, which may cause unexpected effects.

DMSO is thought to increase the effects of blood thinners, steroids, heart medicines, sedatives, and other drugs. In some cases this could be harmful or dangerous. Be sure to tell your doctor or pharmacist about all herbs and supplements you are taking, including DMSO.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use this treatment. Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer


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Chen D, Song D, Wientjes MG, Au JL. Effect of dimethyl sulfoxide on bladder tissue penetration of intravesical paclitaxel. Clin Cancer Res. 2003 Jan;9(1):363-369.

Hashimoto H, Tokunaka S, Sasaki M, Nishihara M, Yachiku S. Dimethylsulfoxide enhances the absorption of chemotherapeutic drug instilled into the bladder. Urol Res. 1992;20:233-236.

Marks PA, Breslow R. Dimethyl sulfoxide to vorinostat: development of this histone deacetylase inhibitor as an anticancer drug. Nat Biotechnol. 2007;25:84-90.

MD Anderson Cancer Center. DMSO (Dimethyl Sulfoxide). Accessed at: http://www.mdanderson.org/departments/cimer/display.cfm?id=8e9bcb72-f0a0-11d4-810300508b603a14&method=displayfull&pn=6eb86a59-ebd9-11d4-810100508b603a14. on June 11, 2008.

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Solit DB, Ivy SP, Kopil C, et al. Phase I trial of 17-allylamino-17-demethoxygeldanamycin in patients with advanced cancer. Clin Cancer Res. 2007 Mar 15;13(6):1775-82.

US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Unconventional Cancer Treatments. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1990. Publication OTA-H-405.

Walker L, Walker MC, Parris CN, Masters JR. Intravesical chemotherapy: combination with dimethyl sulfoxide does not enhance cytotoxicity in vitro. Urol Res. 1988;16:329-331.

Windrum P, Morris TC, Drake MB, Niederwieser D, Ruutu T; EBMT Chronic Leukaemia Working Party Complications Subcommittee. Variation in dimethyl sulfoxide use in stem cell transplantation: a survey of EBMT centres. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2005 Oct;36(7):601-3.

Yaman O, Ozdiler E, Sozen S, Gogus O. Transmurally absorbed intravesical chemotherapy with dimethylsulfoxide in an animal model. Int J Urol. 1999;6:87-92.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008