Are Styptic Pencils Poisonous?

styptic pencil man shaving in mirror

The Bottom Line

Styptic pencils contain aluminum compounds and are used to stop bleeding. The most common use for styptic pencils is to treat small cuts caused by shaving. When applied to the skin, they harden or coagulate the surface of a wound. However, they are not meant to be consumed and may cause stomach upset or nausea if swallowed.

styptic pencil

The Full Story

The word "styptic" is not one that you hear too often today. Styptics are products that are used to stop bleeding. The root words refer to items that cause contracting or closing up of the tissue. We more often hear the word "astringent" used in the same way, but astringents are used to contract pores on the face, for example. The most common use for styptic pencils is to treat small cuts caused by shaving.

Styptic pencils stop bleeding by hardening or coagulating the surface of a wound, just like a scab. This occurs because the formulation is slightly acidic. Acids cause the proteins that they come in contact with to break down and melt together, making a barrier. This action is fast and happens mostly on the surface, keeping the underlying tissue intact.

A styptic pencil is often formulated with aluminum salts like aluminum sulfate, potassium aluminum sulfate, or sodium aluminum sulfate. Sometimes these compounds are collectively called alum. Through history the words "styptic," "astringent," and "alum" have all been used to describe something that tasted bitter and would make your mouth pucker. The aluminum powder compounds are formed into a short pencil shape to be kept nearby when someone is shaving. When a cut happens, you run the pencil under water and then hold it to the cut for a few seconds. The bleeding should stop quickly, and the process can be repeated again if needed. The user is likely to feel a stinging sensation because of the acidic quality, but there is no significant absorption.

Styptics can also be used in powder and liquid formulations. For example, alum is used to wash the bladder during certain medical conditions where there is inflammation and bleeding present. The cases of serious toxicity (sedation, confusion, and seizure) are from these procedures, which are performed continuously over 24 hours or more, and not from topical use of styptic pencils.

Aluminum can be irritating to the stomach—almost all metals and minerals can be. If an adult or child takes a bite from a styptic pencil, they might vomit or have some nausea. These symptoms are likely to resolve quickly. A snack and something to drink can help to buffer these effects. A styptic pencils can also break into smaller pieces and fall to the floor, making it more accessible to children. When any foreign body is swallowed, it comes with the risk of choking or blocking the airway. The astringent taste should be off-putting, but that does not always keep children from swallowing a substance. As with any foreign body ingestion, call 911 immediately if the child appears to have any trouble breathing.

Aluminum is excreted by the kidneys. Those with impaired kidney function might accumulate aluminum and be more likely to have rare adverse reactions, but even in this population an accidental taste of a styptic pencil should be okay.

If someone has swallowed part of a styptic pencil, please log onto the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. Whether you log on or call, expert assistance is available 24 hours a day.

Pela Soto, PharmD, BSHS Pharmacogenomics, BS Microbiology
Certified Specialist in Poison Information

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Styptic pencils should be kept away from children and pets.
  • Styptic pencils are powders formed into a pencil shape, and they can crumble. Clean up crumbles that fall to the floor to prevent little ones from putting them into their mouths.

This Really Happened

A 23-year-old man wanted to make geodes using instructions that he found online. Alum was one of the powdered ingredients that he used. He was not wearing a mask and 30 minutes after using the products he became dizzy and nauseated. He was worried about toxicity and called Poison Control, which recommended that he wash he gently wash his nostrils and exposed skin. It is possible that some of the dust was inhaled and swallowed, causing some nausea, but he was not going to be in any substantial danger for toxicity. He was back to normal about an hour later. Poison Control recommended that he use personal protective equipment next time.

For More Information

Aluminum (element) in: PubChem. Bethesda (MD): National Center for Biotechnology Information [cited 2021 Feb 24].


References

Alum. POISINDEX System [database on the internet]. Greenwood Village (CO): IBM Watson Health [cited 2021 Feb 06].

Gosselin RE, Hodge HC, Smith RP, Gleason MN. Clinical toxicology of commercial products. 5th ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins; 1984. p. II-181.

Ho CCK, Md Zainuddin Z. Alum irrigation for the treatment of intractable haematuria. Malays J Med Sci. 2009;16(4):66–8.

Moreno A, Domínguez P, Domínguez C, Ballabriga A. High serum aluminium levels and acute reversible encephalopathy in a 4-year-old boy with acute renal failure. Eur J Pediatr. 1991 May;150(7):513–4.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Styptic pencils should be kept away from children and pets.
  • Styptic pencils are powders formed into a pencil shape, and they can crumble. Clean up crumbles that fall to the floor to prevent little ones from putting them into their mouths.

This Really Happened

A 23-year-old man wanted to make geodes using instructions that he found online. Alum was one of the powdered ingredients that he used. He was not wearing a mask and 30 minutes after using the products he became dizzy and nauseated. He was worried about toxicity and called Poison Control, which recommended that he wash he gently wash his nostrils and exposed skin. It is possible that some of the dust was inhaled and swallowed, causing some nausea, but he was not going to be in any substantial danger for toxicity. He was back to normal about an hour later. Poison Control recommended that he use personal protective equipment next time.