Putting butter on a burn is a popular folk remedy that has probably been around about as long as the term “old wives tale”. In fact, the butter remedy is just that. Putting butter on a burn quite likely does more harm than good. The same can be said for applying most any lotion to a burn (except lotions with significant amount of Aloe vera juice).
While most household burn remedies lack scientific support, at least one, honey, may soon earn some respect.
Evidence for the Health Claim
The butter-for-a-burn remedy likely owes its origin and persistence to the soothing nature of a cool, greasy substance like butter. It is also has immediate availability where minor burns often occur—the kitchen. However, no clinical studies exploring the healing or pain-reducing properties of butter could be found.
The most closely related scientific inquiry actually offers hope for another natural substance. In 2004, the publishers of the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine website evaluated six cases in India in which honey was used as a primary dressing for burn wounds. The publishers concluded that superficial and deeper (so-called partial thickness ) burns treated with honey dressings healed faster and were less likely to become infected than similar burns treated more conventionally. They also reported no side effects. It is important to note that this report described a very small study, and that the healing properties of butter and honey cannot be reliably compared.
Evidence Against the Health Claim
The well accepted first aid instructions for burns include: 1) prevent infection by cleaning the area, and 2) relieve pain. While butter may afford some temporary relieve from the sting of a recent burn, it has no known antiseptic (cleansing), antibiotic (infection fighting), or long-term analgesic (pain-relieving) properties.
Since burns are the result of tissue injury caused by excessive exposure to heat, it makes most sense to treat them by cooling the area as quickly as possible. Cool water, not ice, has been found to stop the burning process, numb the pain, and reduce swelling. Placing butter or similar greasy ointments directly on a burn is counterproductive since it can seal in the heat.
After initial cleaning and cooling, applying antibiotics will protect against infection, particularly for deeper burns. Daily cleaning and dressings are also recommended for continued treatment until the area is healed. Butter may actually promote an infection by discouraging the use of running water and entrapping local contaminants.
A variety of popular burn “remedies” exist. The only one that seems to have modest pain-relieving properties is the topical application of Aloe vera juice, in liquid or gel form. However, Aloe vera juice is generally recommended for use only after the burned area has been thoroughly cleaned.
Other popular household remedies for burns—including tomatoes, potatoes, milk, and toothpaste—have not been studied and may, like butter encourage infection and prolong the healing process.