Burns are a pretty common occurrence. Maybe you briefly touched a hot stove or iron, or accidentally splashed yourself with boiling water, or didn’t apply enough sunscreen on a sunny vacation.
Fortunately, you can treat most minor burns easily and successfully at home.
However, if you instinctively reach for the hydrogen peroxide, you may want to reconsider. Although it’s a common first aid product in many homes, hydrogen peroxide might not be your best choice for treating burns.
Keep reading to learn more about hydrogen peroxide and better ways to treat burns.
Take a look under your kitchen or bathroom sink. Chances are, you have a brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide lurking under there.
Your typical household bottle of hydrogen peroxide, which is also known by its chemical formula of H2O2, is mostly water. If the label says it’s a 3 percent solution, that means it contains 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and 97 percent water.
Hydrogen peroxide solution has been in use as a topical antiseptic for at least a century. People began using hydrogen peroxide for wound care in the 1920s.
Your parents might have even poured a little hydrogen peroxide on your skinned knees when you were a child. You may remember watching foamy white bubbles sprout up across the surface of your wound.
Those bubbles are actually a chemical reaction at work. Oxygen gas is created when hydrogen peroxide reacts with an enzyme called catalase in your skin cells.
As you watched those bubbles develop on your skinned knee, you may have thought the hydrogen peroxide was killing off all the germs and helping your injured skin heal faster.
And as a 2019 review points out, hydrogen peroxide does have antimicrobial qualities. It can help loosen and sweep away debris and other material that might get into a wound.
While it might initially kill off some bacteria, hydrogen peroxide can be mildly irritating to your skin. Plus, it may damage some of your skin cells and risk the process of new blood vessel production.
And that’s just the relatively weak type of hydrogen peroxide that you’re using. Stronger versions can cause much more serious damage.
Your best bet: good old-fashioned mild soap and warm water. Gently wash your burn and pat it dry. Then, apply a moisturizer and covering it loosely with a bandage.
A minor burn is what you’d call a superficial burn. It doesn’t go beyond the top layer of the skin. It causes some pain and redness, but in a relatively small area, perhaps a maximum of 3 inches in diameter.
If your burn is larger or deeper, seek medical care.
Here are some first aid tips for minor burns:
- Get away from the source of the burn. If the stove was the culprit, make sure it’s turned off.
- Cool the burn. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends using a cold wet compress or immersing your burned skin in cool water for about 10 minutes.
- Move any restrictive items out of the way. This may include jewelry or belts or clothing. Burned skin tends to swell, so be quick.
- Tend to blisters if you have them. Don’t break any blisters that form. If a blister does break, wash it gently with water. A doctor might suggest putting antibiotic ointment on it.
- Apply a moisturizer. The AAD suggests petroleum jelly. A gentle moisturizing lotion is another option, but avoid using butter, coconut oil or toothpaste, which are often recommended as home remedies.
- Cover the burn. A sterile, nonstick piece of gauze or bandage will protect the burned skin and let it heal. Make sure the dressing is loose, though, since pressure can be painful.
- Take pain medication. An over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever like ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen can reduce inflammation and provide some relief.
First degree burn
A first degree burn is a minor burn that only affects the top layer of skin. You’ll notice that your skin is red and dry, but you’re not likely to have any blisters.
You can usually treat first degree burns at home or in a doctor’s office.
Second degree burn
A second degree burn can be broken down into two subtypes:
- superficial partial thickness burns
- deep partial thickness burns
A superficial partial thickness burn goes down beyond the top layer of the skin (epidermis) into the lower layer, known as the dermis.
Your skin may become moist, red, and swollen, and you may develop blisters. If you push down on the skin, it may turn white, a phenomenon called blanching.
A deep partial thickness burn extends even deeper through the dermis. Your skin could be wet, or it could be waxy and dry. Blisters are common. Your skin won’t turn white if you press down on it.
Depending on the severity of the burn, you may need to be admitted to a hospital, but not necessarily a specialized burn center.
Third degree burn
Third degree burns, or full thickness burns, go all the way through your dermis down into your subcutaneous tissue. Your skin could be white, gray, or charred and black. You won’t have blisters.
This type of burn requires treatment in a specialized burn center.
Fourth degree burn
This is the most serious kind of burn. A fourth degree burn extends all the way through the epidermis and dermis and often affects the soft tissue, muscle, and bone underneath. You would also need to receive care in a specialized burn center.
A minor burn, like a first degree burn, may not need a call to a doctor. If you’re not sure if your burn is minor, it can’t hurt to check in with a doctor or healthcare provider to help you determine how serious your burn is.
It’s also a good opportunity to make sure you’re taking care of your burn appropriately. Your doctor may suggest you follow standard strategies for caring for a minor burn, or you may need to make a trip to the doctor’s office or emergency department to get evaluated.
In general, if a burn is larger than just a couple of square inches, or if you suspect the burn goes beyond the top layer of your skin, it’s probably worth making that call.
Additionally, even if it’s just a minor burn, if the pain gets worse or you begin to develop symptoms of infection, call your doctor.
If you’re cooking dinner and you accidentally touch a hot pan, you can probably just hold your hand under a stream of cool running water to cool your skin.
You can also take an OTC pain reliever if you continue to experience mild pain from the burn — but leave the hydrogen peroxide where you found it.
Don’t ignore a larger or deeper burn, though. These more serious burns require a more serious approach. When in doubt, seek a medical expert’s opinion.