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Should you moisturize a cut?

Before you apply that bandage, should you moisturize the wound?
Before you apply that bandage, should you moisturize the wound?
Manchan/Getty Images

Anybody who's ever gotten a skin care lecture from a spa technician or read a fashion magazine article on beauty tips knows that using moisturizer to replace skin-sealing lipids and preserve your skin's water content is absolutely essential to maintaining healthy-looking skin. "Given the assaults that our skin undergoes during the day -- weather, pollution, dry indoor environments, dirt, rubbing and poking -- all women past the age of about 30 should use some kind of moisturizer, in the morning and at night," proclaims Daniel B. Yarosh, author of "The New Science of Perfect Skin: Understanding Skin-Care Myths and Miracles for Radiant Skin at Any Age" [source: Yarosh].

But that advice leaves you to wonder: What about an even worse assault on your skin -- like having it ripped open, torn or punctured? If moisturizer is such a good remedy for other types of damage to the epidermis, the body's outermost layer, then wouldn't it heal cuts and scrapes, too? The next time you get a skin injury, shouldn't you slather it with your regular moisturizer?

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The answer to those questions is: "Well, yes and no." It's true that keeping cut skin moist and elastic is critical for healing and helps to prevent a temporary boo-boo from turning into an unsightly permanent scar. That said, an open wound -- and face it, that's what a cut is -- is more fragile and prone to irritation and infection than normal, unbroken skin that's just a little dry, itchy or scaly. You need to moisturize a cut more carefully, and that means using a different moisturizer and a special healing regimen apart from your usual skin care routine. What's the regimen?

Maybe the best way to get your head around the importance of properly treating a cut is to think of it as a laceration, the medical term for an injury that results in a break in the skin. That sounds way more serious, doesn't it? Indeed, some deep cuts, like the kind you get from being tossed through a window or slashed with a knife, can really wreck your body and slice into muscles, tendons and ligaments, blood vessels and nerves. If you've got a big laceration that's bleeding and has a sharp object still stuck in it, call 911 immediately [source: Heller].

That much shallower boo-boo on your arm or leg isn't as much of a menace. But even a small cut can cause you significant discomfort, and cuts are a convenient way for a nasty bacteria such as Staphylococcus ("staph") to get into your body, which can lead to an infection [source: Gelfand]. A cut can also leave an ugly-looking scar, especially if it doesn't heal properly.

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Once you cut yourself, your skin goes through a multi-stage process of regeneration. First, there's the inflammatory phase, when your skin goes into overdrive to prevent further damage. The blood vessels narrow, and the blood coming out of the wound clots to stop the flow. Your body releases a flood of chemicals that start the healing process, and specialized cells clear the wound of debris over the next several days. Your body also begins a process called epithelialization, in which new skin cells are created to form a protective barrier against bacteria and retain water. Next, there's the proliferative phase, in which you make a lattice of more skin cells and small blood vessels known as capillaries that give the wound its purplish-pink appearance and supply oxygen and nutrients so that the cells can produce proteins. (One of them is collagen, which is what scars are mostly made of.) After two to three weeks, the remodeling phase begins, as the replacement layer becomes stronger and more normal in color. Over the next six months, your replacement skin will become 70 percent as strong as your original hide [source: Durkin].

In the next section, we'll look at why you shouldn't put your regular moisturizer on a cut.

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For one thing, when manufacturers tell you not to do something with a product, it pays to listen. Check the warning disclaimers on the labels of most popular moisturizers, and you'll see the same advice again and again: "Not for use on broken skin."

There's a reason for this. Back in the day, people mostly relied upon simple mixtures of lanolin and petroleum jelly to soothe dry patches of skin. So they might have been able to get away with putting the same thing on a cut. (Petroleum jelly actually is pretty good for cuts once they've begun to heal -- more on that later.) But in the modern, intensely competitive world of "dermaceutical" and "neutraceutical" skin care products, manufacturers have been compelled to add an increasingly vast array of ingredients -- vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, exfoliating enzymes and the like -- so that they can woo customers with extravagant claims. Some products contain more than three dozen active ingredients [source: Loden].

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Maybe some of that stuff will make you beautiful. But when you rub those substances into the fragile environment of an open wound, the results can be pretty awful. Some of the acids in today's miracle multi-function moisturizers are meant to strip away dead debris, for example, so they may irritate vulnerable new skin. Others just don't help cuts to heal. If you're a natural-beauty buff, for example, you might assume that a moisturizer containing a big dose of vitamin E would help regenerate the skin around a cut. To the contrary, in a study published in the journal Dermatological Surgery in 1999, researchers found that vitamin E does nothing to improve the healing of wounds or reduce scarring. Worse, it can cause irritation that may make a scar even uglier [source: Edell].

 

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If you cut yourself, the first thing you should do is clean the wound with soap and water.
If you cut yourself, the first thing you should do is clean the wound with soap and water.
David De Lossy/Getty Images

Well, the first thing you should put on cuts and scrapes is water and soap. Medical professionals call this irrigating a wound, and it helps to prevent infection by flushing away microbes, dirt and debris that can cause a cut to become infected. In the ER, they use special equipment to irrigate wounds, but at home, running tap water works just fine [source: Carroll]. If you like traditional natural remedies, make your own irrigating solution by mixing 1 1/2 teaspoons of tea oil, which is a strong antiseptic, into a cup of warm water [source: Readers Digest]. Resist the urge to dab or wipe the cut, even if you're using a sterile pad. That can actually push dirt deeper into the skin. Instead, just let it air dry [source: Carroll].

Once you've cleaned the cut thoroughly, now it's time to moisturize it. You want to keep the wound damp and soft and pliable, so that it doesn't dry out and scab over. Despite what your mom probably told you when you were a kid, scabs are bad. They actually hinder cuts from healing properly and they also have a tendency to get picked at or pulled off accidentally, which damages your traumatized skin all over again. Healthcare practitioners commonly advise squeezing an antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin onto the cut and then covering it with a bandage. Each day, take off the bandage when you shower or bathe, gently clean the injured spot again, and then reapply the ointment and a fresh bandage. Keep that up for about a week [source: Morales].

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After that, the healing process is far enough along that you can dispense with the bandages, but keep moisturizing the skin to aid the healing process and prevent the formation of scar tissue. At this point, you may want to invest in a jar of that old moisturizing standby, petroleum jelly [source: Morales]. It may be way too greasy and messy for the salon crowd, but the old first-aid remedy of dabbing a little on kids' minor scrapes actually has some validity. Not only is the gooey stuff a potent moisturizer and skin softener, but the barrier that it creates to seal in moisture also can block out invading microbes. It's so effective at preventing infection that hospitals use it to protect premature infants, whose skin hasn't yet developed into an effective barrier [source: Schueller].

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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