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Got a minor burn wound? Don’t use Epsom salts, hold under running water instead

IN SHORT: Epsom salts are a natural remedy for many ailments, but there’s little evidence to support these uses, and nothing suggests they are useful against burns. Running a minor burn wound under cold water for 20 minutes is still the most effective treatment.

In a video posted to Facebook in July 2023, a woman claims that applying a mixture of Epsom salts and water is “one of the best things to use for a burn”. 

She is Barbara O’Neill, the controversial Australian naturopath.

O’Neill was banned for life from providing any health services in Australia in 2019. This followed an official investigation that found she gave dangerous health advice without any qualifications or membership of a recognised health organisation. 

Despite the ban, videos of O’Neill lecturing and talking about using Epsom salts as treatment for a burn wound are popular on social media. 

The video also appeared on TikTok, here, here, here and here.

But do these claims have scientific backing? We checked. 

EpsomBurns_False

Historical use of Epsom salts

Epsom salts are naturally occuring mineral salts made up of the compound magnesium sulphate. They have long been promoted as having many health benefits, including reducing pain and stress. In the video, O’Neill describes applying a mixture of Epsom salts and water to a burn wound, either by leaving the burn in the solution or by covering it with a bandage soaked in the solution. 

In an 1893 medical case report titled “Epsom Salts for the Pain in Burns”, a doctor described treating a patient with Epsom salts dissolved in water after giving the patient the powerful painkiller morphine. They claimed that the Epsom salt mixture “relieved the local pain of burns – it might be said instantly”. 

In the more than a century since then, however, little research has been published on Epsom salts as a first aid treatment for burns. Research published in 2020 suggested that magnesium sulphate, given orally or injected, might be effective in general pain management by reducing sensitivity to different types of pain. But this was not for burns, and did not involve applying the compound in a mixture to the skin.

No evidence Epsom salts should be used as first aid

Africa Check spoke to Dr Neville Vlok, an emergency medicine specialist in South Africa, about first aid for burns. 

He said there was some research suggesting that injected, medical-grade Epsom salts could have a beneficial effect on hydrofluoric acid burns. Hydrofluoric acid is made from water mixed with the compound hydrogen fluoride, a colourless substance used to make refrigerants and light bulbs. 

Studies in rats and rabbits have suggested that injecting hydrogen sulphate slows the progression of the severe chemical burns caused by hydrofluoric acid. 

Outside of this specific and rare chemical burn, there is “no evidence to suggest that Epsom salts should be used as a first aid remedy” for burns caused by contact with heat, Vlok told Africa Check. It “remains an unscientific home remedy”. 

Treating burns with water is cheaper and more accessible. Research has consistently shown that holding the burn under cool, running water for at least 20 minutes “remains the easiest, best studied, most accessible and currently most effective first aid treatment for burns”.

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