Finding alternatives to gentian violet

Posted on October 10, 2019

When Health Canada issued a safety alert on June 12 warning of potential cancer risks associated with exposure to gentian violet, Queen’s Engineering Society executive members started to search for a comparable but safe alternative in time for orientation week, then just 10 weeks away.

“Students love tradition, it’s one of the big pillars of our school,” says Engineering Society of Queen’s University (EngSoc) President Delaney Benoit. “I think there was an immediate concern that we weren’t going to be able to purple at all, that the tradition was going to be lost.”

Though a somewhat modern practice in the history of Queen’s engineering, the all-over skin purpling of some second-year students in character as orientation week leaders – FRECs – has been a part of the orientation since at least the early 1990s. Orientation leaders dunked themselves in kiddie pools filled with warm water fortified with the purple dye and medical antiseptic, gentian violet, to achieve the startling purple skin tone so fondly associated with engineering orientation at Queen’s. It came as a surprise that gentian violet, with its long history as a mild and medically-approved antiseptic, antifungal, and anti-parasitic agent, could pose unforeseen risks. 

Benoit, along with EngSoc Vice-President (Student Affairs) Zaid Kasim, and EngSoc Orientation Chair Kennedy Whitfield, started the search for a safe alternative. Benoit sought clarification on the risks for topical application from Health Canada, a process that took weeks. They met with Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science Kevin Deluzio on the matter and fielded several inquiries and requests for comment from media. 

“We had to start making plans without actually knowing where we stood on the warning,” says Benoit. “We started researching alternatives right away: different things we could use, different approaches we could take.”

By the time Health Canada was able to respond to Benoit’s request for clarification (their advice was to entirely avoid using gentian violet on skin) Benoit, Kasim, and Whitfield had already tried several alternatives including food colouring, and some other food-related products they knew were approved for human consumption.

“Then we started looking at different types of face and body paints, cosplay and theatrical makeup, which is how we found ProAiir,” says Whitfield.

Finding a safe alternative

ProAiir Hybrid Face and Body FX Paint is billed by its manufacturer, Tennessee-based ShowOffs Body Art LLC, as a professional-grade body FX makeup. The company provided a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for their makeup that does not include gentian violet or any of its variants among the composition information. The makeup resists water and sweat, can be sprayed on or applied with a sponge, lasts about three days on the skin, but comes off easily and completely with soap or baby oil.

At home in Calgary, Whitfield was able to find a sample of ProAiir makeup in a retail store. Whitfield, Benoit, and Kasim tested it and said they were encouraged by the results. However, time was running short and finding the funds to pay for enough ProAiir to purple all the FRECs in time for Orientation Week was proving to be a barrier. Benoit says ProAiir costs about 10 times that of similar quantities of gentian violet but the supplier stepped up and offered a 50 per cent volume discount on the order. The EngSoc crew were able to secure further one-time support funding from the Queen’s Alma Mater Society (AMS) Sustainability Action Fund. The ProAiir shipment cleared customs and arrived in Kingston with just a few days to spare.

Benoit and Whitfield demonstrated purpling with ProAiir on a FREC committee member, and Whitfield wrote and distributed among orientation leaders a document about how best to apply it with sponges and special spray bottles. Orientation Week, complete with its purple people, was a success.

“We were really excited by how it worked out,” says Whitfield. “The colour was a little bit different than gentian but that turned out to be helpful because we would have been able to tell if anyone had showed up to Orientation Week wearing gentian violet. We let the leaders know, ‘If you guys show up wearing gentian violet, you will be de-leadered.’ We found that no one went against that. We expected that one or two would try, but ProAiir worked so well, I think that people were happy.”

Looking for a long-term answer

Still, the story isn’t quite over. It remains to be determined if ProAiir is the long-term purple-peopleing  answer. For now, the faculty is taking a stance prohibiting people who have purpled, with any substance, from entering faculty buildings out of concern for damage to the facilities (similar to the policy adopted by Residences). This is of particular interest during next week’s Homecoming celebration.

The next challenge for the EngSoc executive to navigate is how to purple jackets in time for the end of final exams in December. Benoit says she is collaborating with representatives of Campus Equipment Outfitters, Queen’s University Residences, Queen’s Environmental Health and Safety, EngSoc General Manager Jay Young, FEAS Operations and Facilities Manager Simon Smith, and others to determine what if any alternative to gentian violet might be useful for dyeing jackets.

“The purple dyes that were recommended to us by leather suppliers all have gentian in them,” says Benoit. “We don’t know yet whether or not it’s safe to use gentian to dye jackets, so we are looking for an agent that gets rid of the gentian issue altogether. We are hoping to find a practical solution in the next couple of weeks.

“I think so far, though, that there was no spirit lost during Orientation Week because gentian violet wasn’t there. It had the exact same energy as in previous years, if not more, because we found something that worked so well, and that actually made the FRECs lives a bit easier in terms of application and de-purpling. ProAiir was just so much easier to use.” 


Van De Ven 1

Engineering Society of Queen’s University (EngSoc) President Delaney Benoit, left, and EngSoc Orientation Chair Kennedy Whitfield, right, worked as part of a team that sought an alternative to gentian violet.

Ven De Ven 2

During Orientation Week 2019, student leaders in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science used ProAiir Hybrid Face and Body FX Paint, left, as a safe alternative to gentian violet, right, used in previous years.