Medicinally alum, also known as aluminum potassium sulfate and Ming Fan, is a Chinese mineral medicine that can be applied topically or taken internally. Actually alum crystals once meant so much to Chinese breakfast table. This is all because of one popular morning snack called Youtiao (fried breadstick). This is kind of deep-fried dough that is elongated, twisted, hollow, and golden-brown. For people there, twisted cruller and soy milk or plain porridge is a perfect match for breakfast. The secret of this crunchy chewy temptation actually comes from the leavening agent used – the alum. Clinically, it is widely used for many ailments, among which athletic foots, unpleasant body odor, and mouth sores are the most common three ones. And people usually buy alum in local grocery store there.
What is alum?
Medicinally it is mainly processed and refined from alunite, one type of sulfate mineral. It contains mainly potassium aluminum sulfate [KAl(SO4)2•12H2O]. And other name of this mineral medicine include Alumen, Bai Fan, Ku Fan, Alumen mineral, alum herb, aluminum potassium sulfate, aluminum sulfate, alum powder, powdered alum, Alunite, white alum, and so on. In China, alunite is mainly produced in Anhui, Zhejiang, Shanxi, Hubei and other places. It can be mined all year round. After the mining, dissolve it in water, filter, heat and concentrate the filtrate, and let it cool down and crystalize. And the crystals are the desired alum. It is normally used raw or calcined. And the calcined one is called Ku Fan.
It is in the trigonal system. Crystal is in the shape of small rhomb or plate. It is colorless, white, and often tinted with yellow, pink and other colors. Streaks are white. It has glossy vitreous surface and cleavage plane is sometimes with light pearly luster. But the blocky one is with dark luster or slight waxy luster. It is from transparent to translucent. Hardness is from 3.5 to 4. Specific gravity is from 2.6 to 2.8. Melting point is 1,221°F (660.3°C).
Alum health benefits
Long gone are the days when alum was frequently used in cooking. But it is gaining more and more popularity on body odor removal. As a matter of fact, it was first used as antiperspirant by Romans. And later years of use has made it also a reliable deodorant in underarm odor remedies. The mechanism behind is that it can effectively prevent the propagation of bacteria and reduce perspiration by keeping the skin pH low. Similarly, it also works for fungal infection toes or extreme athlete’s foot. What’s more, clinically it is widely used for the treatment of a variety of diseases, such as hemorrhoids, rectal prolapse, uterine prolapse, chronic otitis media, tinea capitis, hydrocele, infectious hepatitis, chronic dysentery, hemoptysis of pulmonary tuberculosis, the ulcer of stomach and duodenum, manic psychosis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection in burn wounds, epilepsy, canker sores, acne, cold sores, etc.
Modern pharmacological actions of alumen
1. It is able to strongly coagulate proteins. And clinically it is often used for tightening skin, reducing inflammation, stopping bleeding, reducing perspiration, and arresting diarrhea. In addition, it is also used as a hardening agent;
2. It has a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity and shows varying degrees of inhibitory effect on a variety of Gram-positive cocci and negative bacteria, some anaerobic bacteria, dermatophytes, and Candida albicans;
3. It has obvious inhibition on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, and Staphylococcus aureus;
4. In vitro it significantly resists Trichomonas vaginalis;
5. Alum by bladder irrigation has the hemostatic function;
6. It promotes ulcer healing;
7. Alum can be used in water treatment.
Selected alum formulas on herbal remedies
The Chinese Materia Medica shows that it is sour in flavor and astringent, cold and toxic in nature. It enters meridians of lung, spleen, liver, large intestine, and bladder. Main functions are dispelling phlegm, eliminating dampness, relieving internal heat, and killing parasites. Basic alum block uses and indications include stroke, epilepsy, pharyngitis, scabies, eczema, carbuncle-abscess, pyogenic infections, burn due to hot liquid or fire, tongue and mouth sores, blepharitis ciliaris, acute or chronic suppurative ear disease, nasal polyp, hemorrhoid pain, metrorrhagia and metrostaxis, epistaxis, bleeding injury, prolonged diarrhea and dysentery, morbid leucorrhea, pruritus vulvae, prolapse of anus, and uterine prolapse. Recommended dosage is from 0.6 to 1.5 grams in internal use.
1. Bai Jin Wan from Pu Ji Ben Shi Fang (Prescriptions for Universal Relief). It is coupled with Yu Jin (Tumeric Tuber) to treat manic depression due to sputum blocking pericardium;
2. Hua Tan Wan from Wei Sheng Za Xing (Spontaneous Thought on Hygiene). It is used with fine tea dust to treat wind-phlegm epilepsy.
3. Fan Shi Wan from Jin Gui Yao Lue (Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Cabinet). It is combined with Xing Ren (Apricot Seed) to cure inhibited menstrual flow and white vaginal discharge.
4. Bai Fan San from Yu Ji Wei Yi (Jeweled Mechanisms and Profound Meanings). It is matched with Ba Dou (Croton Seed) to treat acute pharyngitis.
5. Tui Che Wan from Ji Jiu Xian Fang (Excellent recipes for emergent cases). It is formulated with Qing Fan (iron vitriol) and wheat flour to cure hookworm disease and edema.
Alum side effects and contraindications
So what are alum’s health risks or hazards since it is considered toxic? Because its concentrated solution has irritation on the skin and mucous membranes, taking large dose of alum orally can lead to mouth and throat burns, vomiting, diarrhea, collapse, and even death (1). As mentioned previously, the main component of alum is aluminum potassium sulfate dodecahydrate, which is barely excreted when used as food additive for human consumption. That’s to say, the rest of it will stay in the human body for good. However, the aluminum contained in alum is not the trace element needed by human body. Excessive intake of aluminum will affect the body’s absorption of other elements like iron, calcium, and more. The absence of these vital trace elements will finally lead to a variety of diseases. And if taken in large quantities it is with very unpleasant toxic side effects on brain cells, which thus result in brain atrophy, dementia and other symptoms. For that reason, it is abandoned on cooking in recent years and replaced by potassium hydrogen tartrate or other non-aluminum leavening agents by some large breakfast restaurants and convenience food manufacturers. TCM wise, it shouldn’t be used in the cases of yin deficiency and dyspepsia, accompanied with no damp-heat syndrome. In addition, large dose and long term use of alum are inadvisable.
(1). Zhong Guo Zhong Yao Za Zhi (China journal of Chinese materia medica), 1989;2:42.