Your hand slips when you’re slicing potatoes and you cut your finger. Your first impulse — after you wash the wound — is to reach for a tube of Neosporin. But should you?
Here’s what you need to know about this common over-the-counter (OTC) remedy.
What Is Antibacterial Ointment?
Antibacterial ointments (like Neosporin) are medications used to treat minor bacterial skin infections. These infections can come from small cuts, burns, and scrapes.
Neosporin and similar products are triple-antibiotic ointments. They contain three ingredients that fight bacteria.
Antibacterial ointments can help stop the growth of bacteria. They don’t work on skin infections caused by viruses or fungi.
Never Miss a Beat!
Subscribe to Our HealthBeat Newsletter!
Thank you for subscribing!
You are already subscribed.
Sorry, an error occurred. Please try again later.
Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!
Should I Use Neosporin?
Although antibiotic creams and ointments can fight infection, you don’t need them for most minor cuts and scrapes. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should only use antibiotics on your skin when there are signs of infection.
Signs of infection include:
- Feeling very hot or very cold.
- Red streaks in light skin, or brownish red streaks in dark skin.
- Yellow or golden crusts.
If you do use Neosporin or other antibiotic ointments, you shouldn’t use large amounts. And you shouldn’t apply them for longer than one week.
You should never use Neosporin on a deep or large cut. A doctor should always treat more serious wounds.
Does Neosporin Help Heal Cuts Faster?
There’s no evidence that antibacterial ointments help minor wounds heal faster. If you’re generally healthy and your wound is minor, it will probably heal just as well without Neosporin.
Unless instructed by your healthcare provider, you should never use Neosporin or other antibacterial ointments on:
- A surgical wound.
- Any large area of skin.
- Deep cuts or wounds.
- Large burns.
- Skin infections caused by a fungus or a virus.
- Skin that’s dry or cracked from winter weather.
Does Antibacterial Ointment Cause Side Effects?
There are two main side effects that may happen from using products like Neosporin.
First, antibacterial ointments can dry and irritate your skin. Some people have allergic reactions to them. If you’re sensitive to these ointments, using them can cause contact dermatitis, a painful, itchy rash.
Second, using antibiotic ointments too often can contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria develop the ability to survive the drugs meant to kill them. The germs continue to grow, and the antibiotics become useless. Antibiotic resistance is a growing major public health problem in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) nearly one-third of antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. are unnecessary.
What to Use Instead of Neosporin?
You probably don’t need an antibacterial ointment for every cut and scrape. Most minor wounds heal just as well with a layer of plain petroleum jelly. The petroleum jelly helps keep the wound moist, the dirt out, and the bacteria from spreading.
It’s also important to keep minor wounds covered with a clean bandage.
If you use petroleum jelly, choose the type that comes in a tube instead of a jar. It’s easier to apply and you’ll avoid contaminating the jar with dirt and germs.
How to Treat Minor Wounds at Home
You can take care of most small cuts and scrapes at home. Here are the steps to take if you or one of your children have a minor wound.
- Wash your hands with soap and water (if you have access) before you touch the wound.
- Stop the bleeding. Remain calm (or help your child remain calm) and apply continuous pressure. It might take a couple minutes for the bleeding to stop.
- Gently wash the wound with cool water. The water will remove any debris (like bits of gravel or dirt). If you have saline solution or mild soap handy, you can use that as well.
- Clean the skin around the wound. That will help prevent bacteria and other germs from spreading into the wound. Don’t scrub hard or otherwise irritate the skin.
- Pat the area dry. You should use a clean towel.
- Apply a layer of petroleum jelly or antibiotic ointment. Wounds heal best when they stay covered and moist. You don’t need to let a wound “breathe” — doing so will actually slow down the healing process.
- Cover the wound with a sterile bandage. The type of bandage doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the wound stays covered, to protect it from germs and prevent it from opening up again.
- If your skin is sensitive to adhesive bandages, try a non-adhesive gauze with paper tape. For slightly larger wounds, you may want to try hydrogel or silicone gel sheets instead.
- Change the bandage if the wound starts bleeding again. You should apply a clean bandage once a day. You should also change the bandage if it gets wet or dirty.
- Continue to wash the wound and apply petroleum jelly every day as it heals.
- Apply sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) to the wound after it has healed. Keeping it protected from the sun will help reduce discoloration. It may also help the scar fade faster.
When Should You Call the Doctor for a Minor Wound?
Even minor wounds can cause major problems if they get infected. You should seek medical attention if:
- A cut has uneven or rough edges.
- The wound came from a human or animal bite.
- The wound is large or deep.
- The wound overlies a joint.
- The wound is small but close to a blood vessel.
- The wound won’t stop bleeding.
- There’s a foreign object stuck in the wound.
- You can’t tell how serious the wound is.
- You haven’t had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years. The bacteria that cause tetanus can enter your body through a small cut or scrape.
- Your wound isn’t healing.
- Your wound shows signs of infection (swelling, pus, warmth).
If you’re not sure whether your wound needs medical attention, it’s always best to err on the side of safety. Call your doctor with any questions about how to care for your wound.
American Academy of Dermatology, When to Use (or Not Use) Antibiotics on Your Skin, Link
American Family Physician, Don't routinely use topical antibiotics on a surgical wound, Link
National Library of Medicine, Does antibiotic use accelerate or retard cutaneous repair? Link
American Academy of Dermatology, How to Treat Minor Cuts, Link
American Academy of Dermatology, Proper Wound Care: How to Minimize a Scar, Link
CDC, Antibiotic Prescribing and Use, Link
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.