Fact check: Table salt shouldn’t be used to treat burns or wounds, experts warn

The claim: Table salt can be used to treat first degree and other types of burns

If you have ever been burned from a splatter of hot oil or scalded by spilled coffee, your first instinct would be to run some cold water or apply an ice pack.

You probably wouldn’t think of sprinkling on some salt. But one viral Facebook post claims you should. 

“(If) you get a first degree hot grease burn… or get scalded… or accidentally touch a hot skillet..IMMEDIATELY run cold water on it for a few seconds and then coat it with table salt until the pain subsides,” claims a post first shared on April 29, 2020, and since shared across Facebook more than 80,000 times.   

Using a picture of a hand covered in salt to somehow prove their point, the poster claims this home remedy has worked for them for years. And they promise whoever heeds their advice will not develop any blisters the next day.  

USA TODAY has reached out to the original poster for comment. 

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In the U.S., more than 400,000 people each year receive treatment for burn injuries, according to the American Burn Association. Having a simple solution for a common yet preventable problem may sound great, but it actually isn’t. Experts warn table salt could worsen any injury resulting from a burn and potentially cause even more damage.  

Salt likely dangerous for burns 

Salt has a long medicinal history dating back to ancient cultures like the Romans and Egyptians. It was touted then, as now, as a briny preventer of disease.

While it can prevent bacterial growth, the way salt does so means it can also make a burn worse, experts say. 

This is because of the way water naturally flows from an area where it is abundant to where it’s not. This movement, called osmosis, can be seen when soaking a dry sponge or rehydrating a raisin – water moves into the areas concentrated with something other than itself (sponge fibers or sugars, in the case of the raisin) until the amount of water inside and in the surrounding area are the same.

This mechanism is great for sucking water out of pesky microbes and bacteria, causing them to die. But it’s bad for a burn because the high presence of table salt on the skin drives water inside your cells out and dehydrates your injury, said dermatologist Dr. George Han, associate professor of dermatology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York, and burn specialist Dr. Jeremy Goverman of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Even Epsom salt, a popular mineral compound used for muscular and joint pain relief and made up of mostly magnesium, is not used to directly treat burns due to the same concerns of further injury, Han told USA TODAY via email.  

For those who have tried table salt on a burn and noticed nary a blister the next day, the positive outcome is very likely not related to using salt but rather the minor nature of the burn. 

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Burns are typically categorized depending on the depth of the injury, said Dr. Gary Vercruysse, clinical professor of surgery at the University of Michigan. First-degree burns – the one specifically mentioned by the Facebook post – are where the top-most layer of skin (the epidermis) and the layer beneath (the dermis) remain generally intact. Sunburns are a common type in this category.

“If you have a first-degree burn, it will get better no matter what,” Vercruysse told USA TODAY.  

It is when the injury is far deeper, and the skin barriers are disrupted like with a second-degree burn and beyond, that salt could potentially cause more trauma to a burn wound, Han said. 

Han, Goverman and Vercruysse recommend applying ice and keeping burns well-hydrated with topical emollients like plain Vaseline or Aquaphor, which act as protective yet breathable barriers. Over-the-counter antibiotic ointments like Neosporin can be used, but a prescription antibiotic from a health care professional is a better choice, Han said.   

As a rule of thumb, home remedies should be avoided, and any burns where blistering persists or the wound worsens need the attention of a medical professional.  

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“There are many home remedies that we see in our practice. Rarely do we recommend home remedies over our standard of care recommendations,” Dr. Jeffrey Shupp, director of the Burn Center at MedStar Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C., told USA TODAY via email. “More severe (burns) should be evaluated by a burn provider early to help create a durable treatment plan.”  

Saltwater can be used to clean a burn

It is worth noting salt can be used to cleanse a burn wound, just not treat it.

“Saline solutions can be used to clean the skin and wounds,” Shupp said. “The term ‘normal’ saline solution gets its name because it has a similar amount of salt compared to tears and other body fluids (~0.9% salt).” 

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Han and Shupp cautioned against using pure solid salt since, again, it would be too strong and detrimental to healing. The preferred saltwater solution should be sterile, meaning free of any bacteria or other microorganisms, to prevent any contamination, which can lead to infection and potentially a chronic wound if poorly treated. 

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that table salt can be used to treat first-degree burns and other types of burns. Experts recommend against using ordinary table salt on a burn wound since it may actually make the wound worse.  

Our fact-check sources:

  • American Burn Association, Feb. 5, National Burn Awareness Week 2021
  • American Journal of Nephrology, accessed June 21, A history of salt 
  • Dr. George Han, June 21, Email interview with USA TODAY
  • Dr. Jeremy Goverman, June 21, Phone interview with USA TODAY
  • Dr. Gary Vercruysse, June 21, Phone interview with USA TODAY
  • Dr. Jeffrey Shupp, June 21, Email interview with USA TODAY 
  • Dr. Alejandro Garcia, June 21, Email interview with USA TODAY

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