What should be in my medicine chest?
October 23, 2006 7:57 PM   Subscribe

For household first aid, should I use rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide or witch hazel?

Growing up, we only ever had rubbing alcohol in the house. Oral thermometers were wiped down with it after each use. Wounds would get washed with soap and water, then doused with rubbing alcohol, then bandaged. But I know others use hydogen peroxide for the same purpose, and someone recently said to me that they use witch hazel. This previous thread suggests that hydrogen peroxide is not a true disinfectant.

What are the proper uses, and drawbacks, of these three substances?
posted by LobsterMitten to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard the same about hydrogen peroxide, and that alcohol is the true disinfectant. I don't know about witch hazel. For sterilization, though, nothing beats a good 10-minute boil. As far as wounds go, I wash with soap and water (I use Satin antimicrobial soap, a standard for piercing aftercare), slather with antibiotic ointment, and cover until healed. I've never had a problem doing just that, with no alcohol or peroxide whatsoever. I injure myself frequently (cycling provides good doses of road rash), and even when I removed my palm (not really, but practically...), the ER doc did and recommended just what I described.
posted by The Michael The at 8:12 PM on October 23, 2006

That is to say, I learned it from him, rather than "he did as I told him."

In addition: I just conferred with the girlfriend, and we agreed that peroxide/alcohol on wounds is a very old school and outdated methodology.
posted by The Michael The at 8:13 PM on October 23, 2006

My parents always used alcohol on my cuts. Either of the rubbing or drinking kind. Never had an infection.
posted by Loto at 8:15 PM on October 23, 2006

Hydrogen peroxide's good for some things even though it is not a true disinfectant: got a bunch of fine gravel driven under your fingernails? Or road rash with inclusions? That's the ticket. The Michael The mentions piercings and peroxide will get into the threads or interstices to clean those.

The very best OTC disinfectant I have ever found is composed of chlorhexidrine gluconate (active ingredient in Hibiclens), benzalkonium chloride (active ingredient in Bactine) and benzyl alcohol. This is sold in France as "Mercryl Spray" and "Derma Spraid".
posted by jet_silver at 8:26 PM on October 23, 2006

Witch hazel is an astringent, not a disinfectant. Apparently it can reduce bruising though.
posted by smackfu at 8:27 PM on October 23, 2006

Isn't hydrogen peroxide kind of like a nuke solution? I was warned about using it too much, as it tends to kill everything in it's path, including the healing thingies in the wound.
posted by lobstah at 8:30 PM on October 23, 2006

According to the Association of Professional Piercers, hydrogen peroxide should never be used on a piercing. Nor should alcohol, Hibiciens, or Betadine.
posted by The Michael The at 8:41 PM on October 23, 2006

You're right, TMT, but people didn't know that when I had my piercings done. They're fine.

You use the hydrogen peroxide on the -jewelry- not the body. lobstah is right about that stuff, it doesn't promote healing, but it will and does get the crud out of a cut or abrasion. I get a lot of fines under my nails, which is uncomfortable and which -will- provide a site for infection. Peroxide gets that stuff out in a sort of mechanical way, by foaming it out.
posted by jet_silver at 8:48 PM on October 23, 2006

I tend to use a betadine spray, which seems to really help in preventing infection of minor cuts and scrapes.

On the odd occasion I've used alcohol, it REALLY hurt.
posted by tomble at 8:52 PM on October 23, 2006

Our EMS agency & the Red Cross chapter I work with advises people to not use hydrogen peroxide on wounds as it kills more than just germs. It'll kill other valuable tissue in the area as well.

Alcohol is also outdated. People used to rub it on children to try and reduce a fever. Never heard about witch hazel, but it's not a disinfectant either.
posted by drstein at 9:02 PM on October 23, 2006

Response by poster: So drstein, what should I be using instead?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:16 PM on October 23, 2006

People used to rub it on children to try and reduce a fever

Wow. I hadn't thought of this in years. Totally brought back memories.
posted by rbs at 9:31 PM on October 23, 2006

posted by sindas at 9:48 PM on October 23, 2006

what should I be using instead?

Nothing, or an antibiotic cream. But mild soap and water and a dry sterile dressing held with a bandage should do. Here's what the Red Cross first aid manual from my CPR class last month says about minor open wounds:
  • Apply direct pressure for a few minutes to control any bleeding.
  • Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. If possible, irrigate an abrasion for 5 minutes with clean, running tap water.
  • Apply triple-antibiotic ointment or cream to a minor wound if the person has no known allergies or sensitivities to the medication.
  • Cover the wound with a sterile dressing or bandage (or with an adhesive bandage) if it is still bleeding slightly or if the area of the wound is likely to come into contact with dirt or germs.
Nothing there at all about alcohol *or* hydrogen peroxide. Another take:

Use of an antiseptic is optional. Avoid using alcohol because it is painful and not effective. Hydrogen peroxide kills some germs and cleans the wound, but it also damages healthy tissues if overused. Other antiseptics that might be worth using once include iodine complexes such as Betadine and benzalkonium chloride (Zephiran).
posted by mediareport at 10:00 PM on October 23, 2006

go herbal, oregano oil, absolute bomb for various infections
posted by hortense at 10:02 PM on October 23, 2006

I second jet_silver on Hydrogen Peroxide: it's not a disinfectant, but something I'd use before antibiotic ointment, for instance. Witch hazel can be soothing and refreshing, but it's not for wounds. As for alcohol, it's the disinfectant of choice when you can't use antibiotic salves, or soaps, etc. It's not outdated per se in the sense that it's a proven disinfectant that can kill germs, is cheap, can safely be used repeatedly and is easy to get ahold of.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 10:14 PM on October 23, 2006

Tea tree oil--I've had good results with hydrogen peroxide, but it can no longer be brought on planes as it's an oxygenator.
posted by brujita at 7:15 AM on October 24, 2006

Alcohol is also outdated. People used to rub it on children to try and reduce a fever.

I have an aunt who doused my whole back with alcohol when I had what I describe as "the death flu" several years ago (at 18). Anecdotal evidence, but it's the only thing that brought my fever down. She only had to do it once and I started getting better right away. I thought she was crazy but I was willing to try anything, and it seemed to work, FWIW.
posted by Famous at 7:32 AM on October 24, 2006

Be careful with the tea tree oil. I recently read an interesting article on the NYT website about some negative side effects:

"In Boston at the annual Endocrine Society meeting in June, Clifford Bloch of the University of Colorado School of Medicine presented several cases of young men who had developed marked breast enlargement from using shampoos containing lavender and tea tree oils, which are widely used essential oil additives that present no problem for adults. (Unlike Dr. Dedekian’s cases, these cases were not a result of passive transfer from parents. The boys themselves used the shampoos.)

Dr. Bloch collaborated with scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina to test the oils on human breast cells grown in test tubes. Lavender and tea tree oil had the same effect on the cells as estrogen. "

posted by LuckySeven~ at 9:44 AM on October 24, 2006

Well, rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide each have their uses. Alcohol is good for cleaning things such as thermometers, tweezers, assorted other implements, and body jewelry that you have just removed (notice, the word "removed"). It's not exactly an autoclave, but it kills germs. Let the whatever-it-is dry before putting it away. Peroxide is great for getting blood stains out of fabric. It's also an interesting way to determine whether or not there is a wound (if you see fizz, there's something other than sealed skin, so clean and cover it). However, for wounds there is nothing like antibacterial ointment.

Oh, and for burns, Aquaphor! Sorry if you were trying to reduce the number of things in your bathroom.
posted by ilsa at 10:20 AM on October 24, 2006

We use alcohol, but rather than rubbing alcohol, we use grain alcohol, diluted to 70%. This based on three things:

When working in a hospital, where they use quaternary disinfectants, one-who-would-know was complaining that alcohol should've been used due to efficacy, but insurance wouldn't allow it due to flammability around electrical equipment. (Mother Jones actually tested quaternary disinfectants and found they were not doing what they said they were.)

Another who-would-know told me that at dilutions greater than 70%, some bacteria would effectively seal their cell walls, reducing the alcohol's lethality.

I use grain alcohol, since most non-drinking alcohol is cracked from petroleum, and I just feel better when I use it in the kitchen. Also, methanol has been shown to cause eye damage, though only proven at higher doses than you would likely get incidentally or from vapor.

By the way, bleach is what gets used in operating rooms, but it's more dangerous than people give it credit for. Plus bad for clothes when it splatters.
posted by dragonsi55 at 4:38 PM on October 24, 2006

Actually, it turns out that honey is the best topical antibacterial for wound care; it's effective even against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Vancomycin-resistant enterococci.
posted by nicwolff at 7:02 PM on October 24, 2006

What should you be using? Neosporin is good. For most small cuts & scrapes, mild soap & warm water is what's recommended. If it's something that might require stitches, you shouldn't be dorking around with it at home because you should be going to a hospital to get it stitched. They'll clean it out at the hospital anyway.

Otherwise, I think Johnson & Johnson makes a foaming antibiotic stuff that works ok. But mostly, mild soap & water, and apply some triple antibiotic gel to it.
posted by drstein at 2:10 PM on October 25, 2006

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