Wound Care and Over-the-Counter Antibiotic Creams

Band aid on finger

Many wounds, even superficial ones, can turn into unsightly scars, so it makes sense to promptly and effectively treat them. But many of my patients automatically reach for an over-the-counter topical antibiotic treatment as a preventative measure against infection. Ironically, not only do these treatments fail to prevent infection, but using them may actually increase your chance of skin irritation. In fact, bacitracin, a common ingredient in over-the-counter topical antibiotic ointments, was once voted Allergen of the Year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.

Topical antibiotics are products meant for wounds that are already infected. Since a new wound is not infected, you don’t need an antibiotic. So what should you do to maximize healing and prevent infection? Here are step-by-step instructions for treating a superficial wound.

  1. Wash the wound with soap and water. The water doesn’t have to be sterile. You simply want to flush the wound and clean out debris, bacteria, and dirt.
  2. Apply some hydrogen peroxide.
  3. Gently dry the wound.
  4. Apply some petroleum jelly (eg, Vaseline®) and an adhesive bandage.
  5. Change the bandage and reapply the petroleum jelly each morning and night.

My advice to apply petroleum jelly may come as a surprise. But studies comparing the use of Vaseline and topical antibiotics have shown Vaseline to be more effective in preventing infection. Not only is a product like Vaseline less expensive, it also lowers your risk of experiencing an allergic reaction and decreases unnecessary exposure to antibiotics.

The petroleum jelly works by maintaining the moist environment your body needs to maximize healing for your wound. Keeping the wound covered prevents scabbing, which is your body’s way of sealing in moisture so your wound can heal. Generally, you want to continue using a bandage and petroleum jelly until there is no yellowish discoloration from the wound on the bandage or when the wound does not “bubble” when you clean it with the peroxide. This can take anywhere from 1 to 2 weeks.

Of course, you still need to be vigilant and watch for signs of infection such as redness, prolonged tenderness, pus, or swelling as your wound heals. Infections are more likely to occur in individuals with compromised immune systems, including 1) people whose systems are naturally deficient because of a disease such as HIV, leukemia, lupus, or diabetes; 2) people who must take medicine that weakens their immune system (eg, organ transplant recipients); and 3) people whose lifestyles put them at risk (eg, obesity or smoking).

So the next time you open your first-aid kit to treat a superficial wound, reach for the petroleum jelly. It’s the smarter choice!

Published on 07/29/2010 | Last updated on 12/20/2016