Dear Straight Dope:
I was talking to my brother-in-law the other day and noticed that he had a fairly bad cut on his hand, but it looked kind of weird. I asked what happened and he said that he cut it with a carpet knife accidentally and that instead of using a band-aid or other typical first-aid-type product, he sealed it with super glue.When I sounded surprised at this, he told me that his doctor had told him once that super glue came about during Vietnam as a means of quickly closing wounds on the front lines where troops were under fire and had no time to bandage wounds in a more traditional manner. It sounds plausible--after all it does say that it "bonds skin instantly." Is this true or just an urban legend?
As with many urban legends there’s a mix of fact and fiction in what your brother-in-law said. In contrast to most such cases, though, this one’s a lot more fact than fiction.
Super glue, Krazy glue, Eastman 910 and similar glues are all a special type of glue called cyanoacrylates. Cyanoacrylates were invented in 1942 by Dr. Harry Coover of Kodak Laboratories during experiments to make a special extra-clear plastic suitable for gun sights. He found they weren’t suitable for that purpose, so he set the formula aside. Six years later he pulled it out of the drawer thinking it might be useful as a new plastic for airplane canopies. Wrong again–but he did find that cyanoacrylates would glue together many materials with incredible strength and quick action, including two very expensive prisms when he tried to test the ocular qualities of the substance. Seeing possibilities for a new adhesive, Kodak developed “Eastman #910” (later “Eastman 910”) a few years later as the first true “super glue." In a now-famous demonstration conducted in 1959, Dr. Coover displayed the strength of this new product on the early television show “I’ve Got a Secret," where he used a single drop placed between two steel cylinders to lift the host of the show, Garry Moore, completely off of the ground.
The use of cyanoacrylate glues in medicine was considered fairly early on. Eastman Kodak and Ethicon began studying whether the glues could be used to hold human tissue together for surgery. In 1964 Eastman submitted an application to use cyanoacrylate glues to seal wounds to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Soon afterward Dr. Coover’s glue did find use in Vietnam–reportedly in 1966 cyanoacrylates were tested on-site by a specially trained surgical team, with impressive results. According to an interview with Dr. Coover by the Kingsport Times-News:
Coover said the compound demonstrated an excellent capacity to stop bleeding, and during the Vietnam War, he developed disposal cyanoacrylate sprays for use in the battle field.
“If somebody had a chest wound or open wound that was bleeding, the biggest problem they had was stopping the bleeding so they could get the patient back to the hospital. And the consequence was–many of them bled to death. So the medics used the spray, stopped the bleeding, and were able to get the wounded back to the base hospital. And many, many lives were saved,” Coover said.
“This was very powerful. That’s something I’m very proud of–the number of lives that were saved,” he said.
Ironically, the Food & Drug Administration hadn’t given approval for the medical use of the compound at that point. But the military used the substance, anyway (reference 1).
Although cyanoacrylate glues were useful on the battlefield, the FDA was reluctant to approve them for civilian use. In part, this was due to a tendency of the early compounds (made from “methyl-2-cyanoacrylate”) to irritate the skin as the glue reacted with water and cured in the skin, releasing cyanoacetate and formaldehyde. A compound called “butyl-2-cyanoacrylate” was developed to reduce toxicity, but suffered from brittleness and cracking a few days after application. Finally an improved cyanoacrylate glue was developed for medical applications called "2-octyl-cyanoacrylate." This compound causes less skin irritation and has improved flexibility and strength–at least three times the strength of the butyl-based compound (reference 2). As a result, in 1998 the FDA approved 2-octyl cyanoacrylate for use in closing wounds and surgical incisions, and in 2001 approved it for use as a “barrier against common bacterial microbes including certain staphylococci, pseudomonads, and Escherichia coli" (reference 2). This latest incarnation was marketed under the name Traumaseal as well as the more popular Dermabond.
Cyanoacrylate glues also find use in medicine for orthopedic surgery, dental and oral medicine (marketed as Soothe-n-Seal), veterinary medicine (Nexaband), and for home use as Band Aid brand Liquid Bandage. It even has been explored as a potential treatment for emphysema, where it can be used to seal off diseased lung passages without the need for invasive surgery.
Is it safe to use ordinary household cyanoacrylate glue as a medical glue? According to Reference 7, most cyanoacrylate glues not designed specifically for medical use are formulated from methyl-2-cyanoacrylate, since it produces the strongest bond. Not only can such glues irritate the skin, during polymerization they can generate significant heat, to the point of causing skin burns. I gather this is a problem only if a large area of skin is affected. But to err on the side of safety, you should tell your brother-in-law he should only use medically-approved glue, not the ordinary kind. And always be careful using it–I know families are supposed to stick together, but there are limits.
- Hayes, Sharon Caskey. “Discovery of Super Glue helped land Coover in National Inventors Hall of Fame," Kingsport Times-News, July 11, 2004.
- Schwade, Nathan D. “Wound Adhesives, 2-Octyl Cyanoacrylate”, eMedicine article, Apr. 10, 2002
- Vinters HV, Galil KA, Lundie MJ, Kaufmann JC: The histotoxicity of cyanoacrylates. A selective review. Neuroradiology 1985; 27(4): 279-91
- Fernandez, Tania (Dr) and Bliskovsky, Val (Dr). “Cyanoacrylate Technology: Stay Glued," Pharmbiz.com, Jan. 2, 2003
- Perry LC: An evaluation of acute incisional strength with Traumaseal surgical tissue adhesive wound closure. Dimensional Analysis Systems Inc.
- Jueneman, F, “Stick it to um,” Industrial Research & Development, Aug. 1981, p. 19.
- Quinn, J., & Kissack, J., “Tissue Adhesives for Laceration Repair During Sporting Events,” Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 4 No. 4, 1994, p. 245
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