Why You Should Take Hydrogen Peroxide Out of Your First Aid Kit

updated Sep 20, 2020
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Bottle of Hydrogen Peroxide
Credit: Joe Lingeman

I have five young children who play outside a lot and they get their fair share of cuts, scrapes, and splinters. Up until a few weeks ago, our first aid kit included a vintage-looking, comforting brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Our mending routine included saturating a cotton ball with the antiseptic and squeezing that over, say, a skinned knee. The kids would scream in anticipation and then usually get distracted by the fizzing before we bandaged them up. For the grown-ups in the house, we’ve been known to use this stuff if we happen to slip up with a knife.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

But when I wrote this article about things you should never do with hydrogen peroxide, I took that brown bottle right out of our first aid kit and didn’t replace it with anything else. Here’s why.

The fizzing action that many of us associate with cleaning the wound is a result of oxidation. The oxygen atoms in hydrogen peroxide are reactive and they steal electrons from bacteria cell walls, weakening and destroying them. This is what makes hydrogen peroxide an effective antiseptic. The fizzing action also helps remove dirt and debris out of the wounded area.

However, the same process that damages the cell walls of bacteria also damages healthy cells, and this is not what you want to be doing, especially at a time when you want to promote healing. LiveScience puts it this way: “[Hydrogen peroxide] has been found to slow the healing process and possibly worsen scarring by killing the healthy cells surrounding a cut.”

Dr. Aaron Chen, internal medicine specialist at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital says that although “it should be fine [to use hydrogen peroxide] for small, superficial wounds, it should not be used for deep or large wounds or for a prolonged period of time.”

Dr. Kazu Suzuki, director at Tower Wound Care Center in Los Angeles, has some good additional advice when it comes to wound care

“In the wound care world, we say, ‘Don’t put anything in your wound that you wouldn’t put in your eye.’ Peroxide bubbles up, and it may help dislodge the debris from the wound and dissolve some crusty blood, yet it is very harsh and irritating to an open wound. The same with alcohol. Yes, it will kill some bacteria, but it also kills and irritates healthy skin and the wound bed. I suggest you do not use alcohol, hydrogen peroxide or Betadine solution in the open wound.”

So what are we supposed to use to disinfect scrapes and cuts? Turns out the simplest solution is best. Dr. Chen puts it succinctly: “Honestly, soap and water work just as well for all wounds.” And without the risk of damage! For a more in-depth look at superficial wound care, check out WebMD’s article on How to Treat Minor Cuts and Scrapes

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

As for that bottle of hydrogen peroxide, you can still put it to good use. A 3% solution (what’s sold in most stores and what you probably have on hand) is germicidal and can kill a wide range of bacteria, fungi, spores, and viruses. So transfer that bottle to your kitchen to clean the cutting board or make your baking sheets look like new. Or, check out these 14 ways to use hydrogen peroxide. Just be sure to let it sit on the surface for at least a minute and pick your cleaning cloth carefully, as the chemical can discolor some fabrics. 

An important note: If you wish to use it to disinfect against coronavirus, refer to the CDC’s guide for cleaning instead. 

This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: Why You Should Take Hydrogen Peroxide Out of Your First Aid Kit