The time to learn about topical first-aid treatments is not when you’ve got a gash in your thumb and you’re bleeding on the carpet. The time is now, when (we hope) you’re not bleeding at all.

Here’s what you need to know about first-aid ointments, sprays, liquids, and creams: Some of them are helpful; some of them aren’t. Some may do more harm than good. All of them should be chucked and re-purchased once a year to ensure they’re still effective. None of them should ever be put on a burn—nor should butter, or ice, or any of those other wacky home burn treatments out there. Do not do it—leave your burns alone (unless the blister breaks or there is no blister, in which case bacitracin, and pretty much only bacitracin, is allowed in order to help prevent infection). 

Experts agree that the most important thing you can do is clean your wound and the surrounding area gently with soap and water, pat it dry, and apply an adhesive bandage. If the area around your wound starts getting red and inflamed, or the wound itself gets greenish or yellow or produces pus, or you develop a fever, get to a doctor. Skin infections are nothing to play around with.  

ANTIBIOTICS (NEOSPORIN, POLYSPORIN, BACITRACIN)

Ordinarily, your skin works hard to keep germs out. But an open wound is like an open invitation to bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. Applying antibiotic ointment after cleaning a wound and before applying a bandage may help stave off infection.  

Good for: Small cuts and scrapes

Won’t help with: Pain and itching (although some newer formulations contain mild anesthetics), existing infections, or burns

Warning: Don’t go overboard with this stuff. These ointments are like any other antibiotic treatment; used too liberally, they may actually encourage bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics.

ANTISEPTICS (IODINE, HYDROGEN PEROXIDE, RUBBING ALCOHOL)

Antiseptics are best for helping clean the skin. Although they can kill bacteria, they’re frequently used to help slow its growth instead.

Good for: Cleaning small cuts, preparing for an injection, and swabbing the skin before removing a splinter

Won’t help with: Pain, itching, existing infections, or burns

Warning: Antiseptics can dry out the skin and even kill skin cells, so use these sparingly. 

ANESTHETICS (BACTINE, DERMOPLAST) 

Are your itchy bug bites driving you to distraction? Got a paper cut that just won’t stop stinging? You might benefit from a topical anesthetic.

Good for: Itching from bug bites and rashes; pain from mild burns, sunburn, and small wounds

Won’t help with: Wound healing

Warning: If you find yourself using a topical anesthetic for more than a few days, it's time to take a look at the source of your itching or stinging to make sure it's not infected or spreading.

All images courtesy of iStock