Chemical burns can happen anywhere from work, at home or even at school. With more than 30,000 chemicals readily available in America, chemical burns account for 5% of all burn admissions.
While most chemical burn injuries tend to be workplace accidents, these injuries can originate from misusing skin, hair and nail products, household cleaners, do-it-yourself projects or malicious instances of assault.
What is a chemical burn?
A chemical burn occurs when an external agent (chemical) causes tissue irritation or damage as a result of direct contact. Most chemical burns are caused by either strong acids or bases, with prolonged exposure leading to severe injuries, scarring, disability or worse.
What are some common agents?
- Hydrochloric acid or muriatic acid
- Formic acid
- Chromic acid
- Hydrofluoric acid
- Sodium hydroxide
- Potassium hydroxide
- Calcium Hydroxide
Where are these found?
You can find any number of the above agents in household products like oven cleaners, hair dye, wet cement, pool cleaners, yard materials, bleach or metal cleaners, gasoline and paint thinners.
Signs and symptoms of a chemical burn
All chemical burns should be considered as potential medical emergencies.
The face, eyes, hands, arms and legs are most often affected by chemical burns, but inhalation of some chemicals can also result in injury. The amount of tissue damage from an agent depends on a number of factors, including:
- The strength or concentration of agent
- Where the chemical had direct contact (skin, eyes, mouth, etc.)
- Whether the agent was ingested, swallowed or inhaled
- The amount of agent you came into contact with
- Length of exposure to the agent
Questions to ask:
- What was the agent?
- How did exposure occur?
- What was the duration of contact?
- Was there an explosion?
- What is the toxicity of the agent?
- What decontamination occurred?
What does a chemical burn look like?
Most victims will be immediately aware of the burn and what caused it. Many of the most common chemical burn compounds we listed above are found around the home, your workplace and other familiar environments. Usually, the effects of a chemical burn appear pretty quickly. However, some might not appear until later. Visual signs and symptoms might include:
- Blisters or black skin at the site of contact
- Redness, irritation or a burning sensation at the site of contact
- Pain or numbness at the site of contact
- Vision changes or loss if the agent was in direct contact with the eyes
- Cough or shortness of breath
What should I do if I have a chemical burn?
Chemicals come in both liquid and powder forms. Never pour water on a chemical burn from a powder, as this could create a new caustic agent. For liquid chemical burns, irrigating is recommended. Never try to neutralize a chemical burn.
How to Treat a Chemical Burn on the Face and Hands
The guidelines on treating a chemical burn depend on the severity of the burn and where it is located. A healthcare professional should assess all chemical burns, especially more severe burns that have penetrated through several layers of skin. The hands and face are the two most common contact points, so it helps to know how to treat a chemical burn in those areas while waiting for a medical assessment.
Chemical Burn on Hands
- Remove clothing from the affected area.
- Brush any remaining dry chemicals off the skin. Be sure to use a glove, towel or cloth to not make direct contact.
- Rinse the affected area under cool water for at least 20 minutes.
- Avoid applying oily substances, home remedies or medicine from your bathroom cabinet directly to the burn.
Chemical Burn on Face
All burns to the face are serious, but if chemicals splash in someone’s eye, you should call 911 immediately. In the meantime:
- Remove any remaining dry chemicals from the skin around the eyes with a glove, towel or cloth.
- Rinse with cool water.
- Remove the victim's contact lenses if they wear them.
- Continue rinsing with cool water until you reach medical assistance.
Follow up Chemical Burn Treatment
Once a physician has cleaned, treated and dressed your wound, you may be able to treat it at home by yourself while it is healing. However, skin damaged by a burn is susceptible and prone to infection. Your doctor will likely give you clear instructions for cleaning and care. Otherwise, it’s best practice to follow these first aid recommendations:
- Clean the wound and change the dressing daily.
- Refrain from scratching the burn.
- Avoid popping any blisters. If a blister pops by itself, dab away the fluid and leave the remaining skin.
- Never use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol on a burn.
- Always cover with a clean, dry and sterile non-stick dressing, ensuring it is not too tight. Burn wounds tend to swell, and you don't want to cause additional circulation problems.
- Read the instructions on any medication bottle carefully, and only take drugs in the prescribed dosage.
- Seek your doctor’s advice before taking any over-the-counter meds.
When to Seek Emergency Care for Your Chemical Burns
Not all chemicals can be removed with water. Some may need to be removed in alternative ways by a doctor. All chemical burns should be assessed by a healthcare professional as soon as possible, no matter how minor they are. Even once a doctor has checked the burn site, additional problems may develop. If you notice any of the following symptoms, call 911 or head to the nearest hospital with an emergency department.
- Shock symptoms include cool, clammy skin, a weak pulse and shallow breathing
- Increased pain
- Excess swelling, heat or redness
- Red streaking around the burn
- Pus or blood oozing from the burn
Monitor your burn for any changes. If it is not getting better each day, or you notice any new signs or symptoms, contact your physician as soon as you can.
How Long Does a First-Degree Chemical Burn Take to Heal?
The time it takes to recover from a chemical burn on the skin will depend on how much damage there is and how deep the injury goes. That depends on how strong the chemical or agent was, how much of it made contact with the skin, how long it was there and how soon after the accident a patient receives the proper chemical burn treatment. Like any other burn, a chemical burn has degrees of severity:
First-degree - Only the epidermis, the outermost and most superficial layer of skin, is damaged. First-degree acid burns on the skin are the most common type of chemical injury and usually heal in around 7-10 days.
Second-degree - Both the epidermis and the next layer of skin underneath, known as the dermis, are damaged. After the appropriate medical treatment, healing can take a few weeks.
Third-degree - Extending through the epidermis and dermis to the deepest layers of tissue and nerves, this is the most severe type of burn. Third-degree chemical burns are rare but possible in the event of exposure to flames, explosions and powerful chemicals. Because the burn can reach the muscle, fat and tissue beneath the dermis, the healing process takes longer and can last up to several months.
Preventing Chemical Burns
Even minor chemical burns can be very painful, but the good news is that you can significantly reduce the chances of an accident by taking a few precautions around your home and workplace.
- Always wear appropriate protective clothing like gloves and safety glasses when handling chemical products.
- Only handle chemical products in a well-ventilated area.
- Use the original containers. Never store chemicals in old food or drink containers or keep them in the same place as consumable products.
- Read the label and instructions carefully.
- Store chemical products safely following the manufacturer's guidelines, and never mix different chemicals.
- Keep out of the reach of children.
- If you’re unsure whether a substance is toxic, call the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
- If you’re handling chemicals at work, make sure you’ve had the proper health, safety and OSHA standards training.
By applying these basic chemical safety rules, you can reduce the chances of a chemical injury.