Busting Burn Myths: Science-Backed Remedies for Effective Burn Care

Burns, stemming from exposure to heat, are among the most prevalent household injuries. Yet, managing them at home presents its own challenges. Despite the plethora of 'effective' home remedies touted online, discerning between helpful treatments and potential hazards is important. Suggestions like honey, oils, tea bags, and even tomato slices are widely circulated, but do they actually work?

Classification of burns

Burns are classified as being first, second, third or fourth, depending on the severity of injury.

ClassificationCharacteristics
First degree burn
  • Redness
  • May appear sunburn-like
  • Usually heals by itself
  • Healing time: around 3–6 days
  • Second degree burn
  • Some skin may be damaged or destroyed
  • May have blisters containing clear fluid
  • Pink underlying tissue
  • Often heals by itself
  • Healing time: around 7–20 days
  • Third degree burn
  • Skin will be damaged or destroyed
  • Deep red tissue underlying blood-filled blister
  • May affect underlying muscle or bone
  • Requires professional treatment
  • Healing time: over 21 days
  • Fourth degree burn
  • Penetrates through deep tissue, to fat, muscle, and bone
  • Requires immediate professional treatment
  • May never fully heal depending on the severity
  • When to see a doctor for burns?

    Third and fourth degree burns are considered medical emergencies and require urgent attention by a medical professional. For first and second degree burns less than 3 inches in diameter, it is often sufficient to manage the injury at home.

    Burn degrees

    Exceptions include:

    • Burns larger than 3 inches in diameter
    • Burns affecting the face, genitals, hands, feet, or buttocks
    • Burns caused by chemicals, radiation, electricity, or associated inhalation of smoke fumes
    • Additional symptoms like high temperature, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or other physical complications
    • If there are pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, vascular disease, or compromised immune system
    • Wounds exhibiting signs of infection like odor, pus, and extreme pain

    Expert insight debunking current burn care claims

    So, which home remedies are actually backed by evidence?

    Below, we will look at various claims for numerous at-home burn remedies, evaluating the evidence for each.

    Claim 1: You can use ice or cold tap water directly on the burn

    Yes, and no. The use of cool running water (35–59°F) directly on the affected area for around 20 minutes is the most highly recommended first-line treatment. This works by bringing down the temperature, reducing pain, swelling, and the impact of injury. The sooner the injury is cooled — for the longest period of time — the higher the reduction of impact.

    However, although early scientific studies sometimes advocated for the use of ice as a burn treatment, these were often subjective in nature, and studies show this could be causing more harm than good, as extreme cold temperatures applied to a burn could further tissue damage.

    Claim 2: You can apply butter or oils to burns

    False. Contrary to historical belief, applying butter, oils, or any other greasy substances can potentially worsen the injury, since the grease will slow the release of heat from the skin, causing increased damage due to heat retention. There is also a risk of infection from applying such substances, so it is best to avoid them.

    Claim 3: You should break blisters and remove the skin

    Possibly, but not at home. ‘De-roofing’ is a medical procedure in which the blister is broken to remove fluid and skin. However, this procedure should not be done at home but rather in specific contexts by a medical professional, and under sterile conditions.

    Blisters provide protection for the underlying injury, and there is some evidence to suggest that the blister fluid actually contains wound-healing properties. So it is best to leave your blister alone, and if you become worried about its appearance, it is best to seek professional advice.

    Claim 4: You can apply rubbing alcohol to a burn

    False. Applying rubbing alcohol to an injury may seem logical due to its disinfectant properties. However, this is extremely dangerous and can harm the tissue and delay healing, causing pain and irritation.

    Claim 5: You can use honey for immediate relief

    Possibly. Evidence suggests that honey has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which could improve healing times in mild to moderate burns, and can be found as an addition to some wound care dressings. However, studies evaluating these effects were observed using medical-grade honey, and not the honey found in your kitchen.

    However, there are also concerns about the potential risk of infection when used as a first-line treatment, and it should not replace immediate cooling of the injury with water.

    Claim 6: You can apply aloe vera immediately

    Maybe. Evidence around the use of aloe vera on burns is mixed. On one hand, studies suggest the use of aloe vera can significantly shorten wound healing time. However, other studies suggest there is no real evidence to back up this claim.

    Practically, it is important to note that the use of aloe vera should only be used to soothe minor burns, and never on open or severe wounds.

    Claim 7: Tomato slices can be applied for relief

    Unlikely. Although tomato slices may provide some cooling relief to a burn, they have no healing properties and should not be used as they risk contaminating the area of injury.

    Claim 8: Tea bags can be placed straight onto the burn

    Inconclusive. There are some studies suggesting that green tea usage significantly decreased burn size in comparison to the control group, and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties beneficial for burn wound healing. However, evidence is limited and inconclusive, and this method should not replace effective first aid measures and appropriate medical treatment.

    Claim 9: You can apply egg whites to prevent scarring

    False. There are studies that show the use of egg whites on burns may help prevent scar tissue formation, which may occur during the later stages of wound healing. However, this study utilized an egg-white-based ointment in controlled surgical conditions, not raw egg. Burns are prone to infection, and the bacteria contained within eggs can cause serious infection, so this treatment is not recommended for use at home.

    Claim 10: You can apply vinegar to sunburns

    False. Applying vinegar to sunburns won’t help them heal. In fact, the mild acidity of vinegar can further dry out your skin, making the burn worse.

    Claim 11: You can apply toothpaste to a burn

    False. There is absolutely no evidence to back up the idea that toothpaste can help heal burns. This may be detrimental, allowing harmful bacteria into the site of injury.

    Claim 12: You can use ginger for burn relief

    Possibly. Natural remedies are deeply rooted in many cultures, and ginger is used as a treatment option for various ailments due to its potential anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and pain-relieving properties. However, applying ginger directly to open wounds or severe burns may cause irritation or adverse reactions, so use for burn healing should be approached with caution.

    With all of this in mind, it would be beneficial to consider a quick fix guide for healing burns fast at home, backed by evidence.

    Science-backed tips on how to heal a burn fast at home

    • Cool the burn with cold running water as quickly as possible, for as long as possible.
    • Keep the burn clean and moist, creating an environment suitable for healing.
    • Do not apply any oils, butters, gels, or ointments immediately, as they could delay wound healing, cause infections and contribute to further damage.
    • Cover the burn with a sterile non-adhesive dressing or clingfilm.
    • Take over-the-counter pain relief such as paracetamol, although this won’t directly influence wound healing, it will help with pain during the healing process.
    • Stay well hydrated and maintain a well-balanced diet, encouraging wound healing.
    • Seek medical advice for severe burns as mentioned above.

    Quick and effective treatment alongside appropriate wound care is often the best way to prevent or minimize the appearance of scars, but there may be other effective methods to employ in the weeks to months following injury.

    Top tips to reduce the risk of scarring

    1. Keep the wound clean.
    2. Protect the wound with an appropriate non-sticky dressing.
    3. Avoid picking or scratching the wound.
    4. Avoid sun exposure for as long as possible, utilising sun protection and shade wherever possible.
    5. Utilise appropriate silicone dressings, as advised by healthcare professionals, which can help flatten and soften scar tissue.
    6. Massage scar tissue with oil or cream once fully healed.

    Although some home remedies may offer potential benefits in the wound healing process, most should be used with caution, and nothing should replace immediate cooling in water as quickly and for as long as possible, as this is the most important step in effective burn care.

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