How to Treat Burns So You Reduce the Risk of Scarring — Expert Advice

Third-degree burns are called “full thickness burns” because they damage the entire epidermis and dermis, Beachkofsky explains, while fourth-degree burns cause the deepest damage, reaching the muscle, tendons, and bones. “When a person gets a third- or fourth-degree burn, the skin will appear charred and can appear white, brown, or black. In these situations, the risk of scarring, infection, and pain is high, and emergency attention is recommended.”

What’s the difference between a thermal burn and a chemical burn?

In addition to degrees, there are several types of burns in terms of their cause. Electromagnetic radiation and electricity can cause burns, but the two most common types are thermal and chemical burns.

“Thermal burns are what occur when your skin comes in contact with something so hot that the proteins that the skin cells are made up of start to denature and break down,” Beachkofsky says. “This can occur with lower temperature exposures over a longer period of time such as the extended use of heating pads placed directly on the skin or with higher temperatures exposures over shorter periods such as a curling-iron burn on your forehead or spilling a hot drink on your skin.”  

Chemical burns, on the other hand, can be the result of exposure to acidic cleaning products like bleach, basic products like vinegar, and even hair relaxers and straightening formulas. “Many of these hair-treatment products contain sodium hydroxide — which is better known as lye — and prolonged scalp exposure during hair treatments may result in a burn,” Beachkofsky says. 

Annie Gonzalez, a board-certified dermatologist based in Miami, adds that their severity depends on the length of contact, the chemical’s corrosiveness, and the temperature. Regardless of whether the burn is thermal or chemical in nature, however, the outcomes are very similar. “Both destroy tissue and cause nerve damage,” Gonzalez says.

What should you do immediately after you’ve suffered a burn?

If you have just experienced a burn, Beachkofsky says it may be difficult to know right away how much damage has occurred. “Your heart is likely to be racing, you are likely in pain, and you may not be thinking clearly. Take a deep breath, try to calm yourself down, and assess the situation,” he says, recommending that you move to a safe environment and ask those around you to help evaluate your injuries and administer first aid.  

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