28 June 2018

Old Wives’ Tales: How NOT to Treat Burns

Burns are one of the most common household accidents, yet there is a great deal of misunderstanding about how to treat them. There are many questionable Old Wives' Tales offering suggestions – from toothpaste to mayonnaise- but how reliable are they? 

As we are now in the midst of what promises to be a two-week-long heatwave, sunburn will likely become a widespread issue across the UK. Sunburn causes stinging pain and redness, but only affects the outer layer of skin. This is known as a first-degree burn. Other causes of first-degree burns are scalding and mild electrocution, to name a few examples.

Did you know? Stopping smoking can help the skin to recover, as smoking reduces blood flow to the skin, delaying healing. 

A recent study undertaken by a well-known parenting advice website, showed that more than one in ten parents grab items from their bathroom cabinets or kitchen cupboards to treat their children’s' minor burns, over seeking professional help.

Joe Mulligan, the Head of First Aid for the British Red Cross, is setting the record straight:

“People often think lotions and potions will have a cooling effect, but in reality the most cooling treatment is going to be the water coming out of your tap. Young children in particular have more sensitive skin, so getting the treatment right is vital to help reduce painful scarring in the future.”

Out of curiosity, we explored some the seemingly far-fetched cures, looking into what actually happens when you apply them to an area of burned skin...


Ice. Cold, smooth and numbing. Surely ice would be the perfect remedy for a stove burn.

However, according to The Mayo Clinic, putting ice on a burn can cause frostbite and extensive damage to the skin. To the same end, it isn't a very good idea to pour ice cold water onto a burn, either. The extreme cold causes constriction of the blood vessels and can worsen injury by reducing blood supply. Applying cool water can help to avoid blistering.

Aloe Vera

This evergreen perennial has been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes. Touted as the “burn plant,” aloe vera is a trusted natural remedy promoted by doctors for first degree burns, lowering the possibility of infection and preventing painful scarring. Aloe vera will not agitate the skin any way. 

Butter, Petroleum Jelly and Mayonnaise

These three sinful ‘solutions’ fall into the same category, as they’re all oily substances that’ll do you no favours. Greasy ointments such as these will slow the release of heat from the skin, leading to greater harm from the retained heat.

Take Vaseline. You shouldn't put it on a fresh burn, as burns continue to damage the surrounding skin for quite some time. The heat continues after the initial burn occurs. By applying Vaseline on the burn's surface, it will only trap the heat in. It is essential that you wait until the burn is completely cooled down before sealing it.


If you've been over-enthusiastic with your coffee-making and burn yourself, think twice before reaching for the bathroom cabinet for the Colgate. As toothpastes contain chemicals like calcium and peppermint, it increases the risk of contracting infections and also affects the tissue of the skin. Toothpaste isn't sterile, making it one to avoid.

Essential oils

While essential oils can be used to treat burns in the aftercare stages, the overall treatment will be far more effective if measures have been taken to help remove the heat from the burn beforehand. Otherwise, essential oils run the risk of having the same effects as the no-no substances above.

The story behind the discovery of the healing properties of essential oils, took place in 1910, when French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse found himself in a rather 'sticky situation'. Having severely burned his hand in a laboratory explosion, he plunged his hand into the nearest liquid, which just so happened to be a vat of lavender oil. Gattefosse has since been given credit for coining the term ‘aromatherapy’ in the form of his 1937 book, 'Aromathérapie', which was the culmination of his essential oils research and clinical observations by several doctors.

To be on the safe side, essential oils should be used more as an aftercare product, rather than a quick-fix in the first instance of an accident.

The nature of burns is that they happen quickly and unexpectedly. It's natural to feel shocked and panic, but if you know the right steps to take, injury, pain and scarring can all be kept to a minimum.

We'd encourage you to watch our video below for easy-to-follow instructions, and to leave the condiments firmly in the cupboard!

This video is one of a series of training materials within our First Aid Training Course. The course covers a range of other life-saving techniques for scenarios including choking, unresponsive casualty, stroke, CPR, heart attack, anaphylaxis, and severe bleeds.