Choosing the right mounting medium for making permanent slides

There are numerous different mounting media available for making permanent slides. What factors determine the choice of the mounting medium? Here are some possible points to consider.

Toxicity: Solvent-based mounting media (such as Eukitt and Canada Balsam) require the specimen to be in xylene prior to embedding. This substance is toxic. Other mounting media, such as Glycerol jelly, may contain hazardous antiseptics. This aspect of toxicity is something to consider when making permanent mounts either as a hobby or for educational purposes in schools. One should ask oneself, if one should not use other alternatives.

Refractive index: The correct refractive index (RI) of the mounting medium can be critical for seeing details of the structure. If one uses phase contrast microscopy, then the RI of the mounting medium should be very different from the RI of the specimen. For regular bright-field work with pigmented specimens, the RI should be the same. In an ideal world, the mounting medium should be matched with the type of specimen. For amateur or educational work, this may be of less relevancy, however. Some high-end microscope objectives are calibrated to be used for a specific RI of the mounting medium, otherwise the resolution is reduced.

Compatibility with specimen: Specimes which are kept in water should be transferred into a water-based mounting medium. Transferring them into a solvent-based mounting medium may result in a clouding of the resin. Likewise, specimens which are kept in alcohol should be transferred to xylene and then embedded in a solvent-containing mounting medium. Euparal allows the specimen to be present in alcohol.

Pigment stability: Some mounting media cause a fading of pigments and stains over time. If pigment stability is of relevancy, then one should use mounting media which do not react with the pigments of the specimen. In some cases a fading of pigments is desirable, however. This brightens the specimen and makes it more easy to observe.

Shrinkage: Some mounting media shrink when they dry. The effect is particularly noticeable when thick specimens (e.g. whole insects) are embedded. Non-water based mounting media are known to do this. Glycerol jelly, which is water-based, does not shrink, however.

Durability: How long should the permanent slides be stored? Non-solidifying mounting media may not hold the specimen in place very well and there is the risk of running out if not sealed properly. Other mounting media may start to crystallize over the years. Still others may adversely react with the pigments of the specimens. Canada balsam is known for its good durability.

Cost: Some mounting media (such as Canada Balsam) are quite expensive. Others can be made in the kitchen from readily available materials (Glycerol jelly).

Ease of use: Here we have to consider two aspects, the preparation of the specimen prior to mounting and the actual mounting process. Some mounting media require the specimens to be dehydrated and fixed before mounting (for resin-based media). This can be a time consuming process. During the mounting process, some media are more prone to form air bubbles (Glycerol jelly).