Note: This article contains graphic images of burns.
If you’ve ever experienced a sunburn or scalded yourself in the kitchen, you need to know some basic burn first aid — and when to see a doctor for your sunburn.
First, some burn basics. “The degree of a burn is determined by what layers of the skin it involves, i.e. how deep it goes,” Sejal Shah, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, tells Allure. Ahead, we’ll break down everything you need to know about burns (sunburns and beyond), including how to identify the degree of your burn, how to treat it, and when to seek medical attention, if so needed.
How to Identify the Degree of Your Burn
First-degree burns are the least severe. In fact, you’ve probably had at least a few of them, as a sunburn is a classic example, Abigail Chaffin, a board-certified plastic surgeon and burn specialist, tells Allure. “A first-degree burn is a burn that involves only the outer layer of skin (called the epidermis) typically involving redness, peeling, and pain, but no blistering or breaks in the skin,” she explains.
Once a burn starts to blister, it’s classified as a second-degree burn. “A second-degree burn involves the second layer of the skin called the dermis,” Chaffin explains. In addition to the blisters, these burns are more painful — and more worrisome. “With second-degree burns, there is risk of secondary infection and scarring, especially with a deeper second-degree burn,” according to Shah.
Then there are the seriously severe burns, classified as third-degree. “These burns reach completely through the skin and into the fat, muscle, and nerves below,” Chaffin explains. “It’s a major injury.” In these cases, the skin can literally appear charred (either black or white) and leathery. Since these burns can destroy the nerves, they might not actually be painful, despite their severity, according to the Mayo Clinic.
How to Treat Each Kind of Burn
“Third-degree burns should always be treated in a burn center,” says Chaffin. For these burns, surgery is required to remove the damaged tissue and graft new, healthy skin onto the wound, she explains. For the first- and second-degree burns you’re much more likely to encounter after forgetting your SPF, treatment is a lot simpler.
“If you develop a sunburn, treat the skin from the outside in and the inside out,” Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Allure. Immediately after you burn, he recommends using a cold milk compress to help bring down any swelling and soothe any pain. Add skim milk to a bowl with ice and soak a washcloth in it — then apply to your burn. “Proteins from the milk coat, calm, and soothe the skin,” explains Zeichner.
Contrary to what many non-doctors tend to believe, Chaffin advises skipping the ice. Even though it sounds tempting, she warns that this can actually damage the tissue more.
Gently cleansing your skin after a first- or second-degree burn is also important. The key word here though is gently, Zeichner stresses. “Especially after leaving the beach, you may want to scrub the skin to remove dirt, sand, oil, and sunscreen,” he explains. “But overly scrubbing the skin, which is already weakened from a sunburn, can cause more harm than good.”
To safely clean your burn stay away from any exfoliating cleansers and harsh soaps, which have an alkaline pH and can be irritating, Zeichner explains. “Instead look for gentle, hydrating, soap-free cleansers like Dove Deep Moisture Nourishing Body Wash that effectively cleanse the skin and hydrate at the same time — without causing more damage to the outer skin layer.”
Finally, you want to make sure to keep scorched skin moist. Since a burn disrupts the skin barrier, it can become extra dry and sensitive as it heals. The remedy? Keep it moist with aloe vera gel or a light petroleum-based lotion. Zeichner recommends Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Lotion to help seal in moisture.
For a mild second-degree burn, you can treat it pretty much the same way you would a first-degree burn. But as it heals, the experts say it’s important to pay closer attention to spot signs of infection. You have to be especially careful with the blisters. “If the blister is large, and you feel up to it, you can try to drain it,” says Zeichner.
To do this, grab some rubbing alcohol and sterilize the blister and surrounding skin. Using a sewing needle, which should also be sterilized with rubbing alcohol, gently poke the side of the blister, Zeichner says. Gently press on the blister to drain the fluid. After you pop the blister, apply an antibiotic cream and, whatever you do, make sure not to rip any of this skin off. This can up your chances of infection.
“Since second-degree burns are more severe, I recommend a heavier ointment to protect the sensitive or blistered skin,” Zeichner says. Try CeraVe Healing Ointment. With a more serious second-degree burn — one that covers a large area, is incredibly blistered or painful, or is in a tough to treat position such as your hand or the back of your legs — see a doctor.
When to Seek Medical Attention for a Burn
While most minor burns are no biggie, the more severe burns always require professional attention. “If you have large blisters or any signs of infection, such as oozing or increased pain, go to the doctor,” Chaffin says. If your burn hasn’t healed after two weeks, this is a reason to see a medical professional as well, she says.
The severity of the burn isn’t the only thing that should dictate when you see a doctor. The location of the burn also matters, Chaffin says. Any burn on a sensitive area, like your face or genitals, could warrant professional attention.
You also want to get extra care for burns on your joints. Here’s why: “Especially with a second-degree or deeper burn, as it heals it can create scarring of the tissue,” Chaffin explains. “If that happens in the area of a joint,” — say, your hands after a bad mishap in the kitchen — “scarring during healing can impair normal movement,” she says. “A doctor can provide the best healing process and even arrange physical therapy, if necessary.”
The bottom line: Minor burns are nothing to worry about as long as you treat them properly. Stay hydrated, keep burns clean and moist, and watch out for any sign of infection. If your burn seems to be getting worse or more painful, see your doctor.
Now, read how to prevent a burn in the first place:
- This Super Common Sun Protection Tip Is Actually a Total Myth
- Yes Your Sunscreen Expires — Here’s When to Replace It
- The Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide for 2018
Now, see how sun care has evolved over the past century: