Skin Deep

What to do about a burn: baking soda, potato slices, aloe?

In a previous Miami Herald column, I outlined the steps to take to treat burned skin, including applying aloe, cleaning with an antibacterial cleanser and covering with a Tegaderm dressing. In response to that post, I received several emails from readers with suggestions and questions about other ways to treat a burn. After looking more closely into some of these ideas, I’d like to share my answers and recommendations.

Dr. Leslie Baumann.jpg
Dr. Leslie Baumann

Baking soda

Baking soda has gained a reputation for being an all-purpose ingredient, from baking to cleaning to cosmetic uses. Some people have suggested applying it to a burn to “pull the heat out.” However, baking soda or baking soda paste is not the safest option when calming a burn. Baking soda is alkaline, with a pH of 9. Both strong acids and bases (alkalis) can cause significant tissue damage on contact.

Acids are defined as proton donors, and bases are defined as proton acceptors. The strength of an acid is defined by how easily it gives up the proton, and the strength of a base is determined by how easily it binds the proton. Although baking soda is weakly alkaline, it could damage skin unless it is paired with an acidic (low-pH) ingredient.

A better way to lower the temperature of a burn is to run cold water over it. Water has a neutral pH of 7.

Potato slices

Another Miami Herald reader shared that he had heard you should slice a potato and put that on the burn to “draw out the heat.” I found many research studies that showed that boiled potato peels make a good wound dressing for burns, but I could not find any evidence for applying a sliced potato to the wound.

Banana leaves

My research into the potato slice tip revealed that banana leaves can be used as a wound dressing. One study found that they worked better than boiled potato skins, since banana leaves are large and can therefore cover a larger surface area than potato skins, and their surface is “non-adherent, waxy, and cool.”

Honey

Honey has been used since ancient times to heal burns, skin ulcers and other wounds. Recent studies have shown that due to its antimicrobial properties and potential to reduce scarring, honey is an effective treatment for burns. In fact, honey worked better at healing burns than boiled potato peels, according to one study. Another study found that honey worked better than silver sulfadiazine, the topical ingredient that most doctors use.

Egg whites

During my research, I found reports of people using egg whites to treat burns, but could not find any data to support this.

Aloe

Aloe is the most popular natural burn treatment and has been shown to work better than silver sulfadiazine, the treatment used in burn centers. Aloe is best used for first- and second-degree burns. If you live in South Florida or a similar climate, aloe plants are easy to grow in your backyard. Cut the leaf open and squeeze the gel onto your skin for an immediate cooling effect.

My recommendations

In review of all the literature on treating burn wounds, my recommendations are:

  • Immediately run the burned area under cold, clean water.

  • Apply aloe, honey, antibacterial ointment or silver sulfadiazine cream.

  • Cover with a bandage, boiled potato dressing, or banana leaf dressing to protect the wound. Keep covered until healed.

Thanks to all the readers who emailed me with these great ideas! I would love to invite you to come discuss this on Facebook at BaumannCosmetic so everyone can benefit from your interesting questions.

For more information and videos about how to care for your skin, you can follow Baumann Cosmetic on YouTube, or follow @BaumannCosmetic on Instagram or Facebook.
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