Touching wet cement can cause a chemical burn that may not appear right away and may get worse over time. Some cases require emergency medical care.

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Cement burns, sometimes also called concrete burns, are chemical burns caused by cement.

The words ”concrete” and ”cement” are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference. Cement is an ingredient that makes up about 10 to 15 percent of concrete. It hardens over time as it reacts with air molecules.

Concrete is a mixture of cement with sand, gravel, and pieces of rock.

When wet cement contacts your skin, chemicals react to water molecules in your skin. This reaction produces alkaline molecules that can break down your skin tissue. The longer cement stays in contact with your skin, the worse the burn becomes.

Learn when you’re most at risk of developing a concrete burn, and how you can treat it.

When you add water to cement powder, a molecule called calcium oxide turns into calcium hydroxide. When this happens, it raises the pH of cement.

The pH scale is a measure of how acidic or basic a substance is on a scale of 1 to 14. A pH of 1 means it’s a strong acid, a pH of 7 means it’s neutral, and a pH of 14 means it’s a strong base. The natural pH of skin, on average, is 4.7. Substances on the high or low end of the scale can cause chemical burns that damage your skin.

Chemicals in wet cement react with sweat and water molecules in your skin and produce ions made of an oxygen and hydrogen molecule. These molecules dissolve proteins and collagen fibers. They also break down fats and dehydrate cells.

The longer wet cement touches your skin, the longer it reacts with water molecules and the worse your burn becomes. In an older 2007 study, researchers reviewed cases of cement burn injuries at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, Ireland between the years 1996 to 2005. They found that the average time of exposure for people admitted to the burn unit was 60 minutes.

Is it safe to leave handprints in wet cement?

Brief exposure to cement is unlikely to cause concrete burns if you wash your hands immediately with water and pH-neutral or slightly acidic soap. But to be on the safe side, avoid touching wet concrete unnecessarily.

If you do touch cement, wash it off your hands before you develop noticeable symptoms. According to Poison Control, burns usually continue to get worse even after washing off the cement.

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Cement burns often occur when cement gets trapped in areas like your gloves or boots, where it can easily go unnoticed and lead to delayed treatment. Watches, rings, and jewelry can also easily trap it.

A 2015 case study describes a 28-year-old man who developed severe burns after kneeling on cement for 3 hours while resurfacing his basement floor. According to the authors of the study, most concrete burns occur in lower limbs, particularly around the knee, ankle, and foot. Most cases of concrete burns in developed countries occur in construction workers or people working with cement at home.

Other case studies

Poison Control highlights two case studies of people who required emergency medical attention after exposure to cement.

In the first case, a 2-year-old-girl poured a bag of dry cement on herself. She had symptoms of coughing, choking, and vomiting, which resolved about 3 hours after arriving at the emergency room.

In the second case, a 57-year man developed deep burns on both knees and skin after kneeling in concrete as he poured it out.

A 2013 case study describes another 28-year-old man who jumped into a cement truck and was there for 3 to 4 hours until he was found. He died 13 days after admittance to the hospital due to multiple organ failure related to his burn injuries, ingestion of concrete, and complications.

Chemical burns often don’t appear until after your initial exposure. It isn’t always obvious that concrete caused your burn, since the contact may have occurred hours earlier. Burns tend to be slow to appear, and get worse over time.

Depending on the severity of your burn, your symptoms may include:

Here’s how you and your doctor can treat concrete burns.

First aid

As soon as you notice cement on your skin, remove any jewelry, protective gear, and concrete-soaked clothes. Brush any dry concrete of your skin and flush the burn with lukewarm water for about 20 minutes.

Seek medical attention after rinsing.

Concrete burn neutralizer at home

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration recommends applying diluted vinegar or another acidic substance like citrus juice to help neutralize the burn and prevent further damage.

Avoid applying creams or lotions unless advised by a doctor.

Medical treatment

Tell a healthcare professional that you’re dealing with a concrete burn when you arrive at the hospital or clinic. They will rinse your burn again and dress your wound with bandages, and may give you antibiotics to reduce chances of infection.

If the burn is deep, covers a large surface area, or completely encircles an extremity, hospitalization is often necessary.

Medical professionals can perform a procedure called debridement where they remove dead skin tissue and follow that with a skin graft.

Medical emergency

Seek medical attention if your burn is larger than 3 inches across. A burn that causes a lot of pain or covers your face, genitals, hands, or feet should also prompt emergency medical attention.

You can prevent concrete burns by:

  • wearing proper safety equipment like safety goggles, gloves, long pants and sleeves, and knee pads when working with concrete
  • wearing waterproof boots high enough that concrete won’t leak over the top. You can tuck your pants in your boots or duct tape them together to create a seal.
  • wearing well-fitting gloves
  • removing concrete splattered on your skin as soon as you notice it
  • trying not to get concrete on your skin when removing work clothes
  • avoiding unnecessary exposure to wet concrete
  • avoiding wearing jewelry and watches when working with cement

Concrete burns are caused by chemicals in wet cement. If you get wet concrete on your skin, rinse it off with water and a pH neutral or slightly acidic soap as soon as you notice it. Burns tend to onset slowly and the longer you wait to treat them, the more severe they become. Symptoms tend to get worse even after rinsing off concrete.