FAQ: antibiotic creams

October 5, 2015

It used to be that when we got a cut or scrape, we'd wash it and stick on a bandage. Today people are likely to add a third step to that process, applying an antibiotic ointment to the wound. As we will discuss, are we going overboard, or do these ointments really provide a benefit?

FAQ: antibiotic creams

1. Does antibiotic cream make wounds heal faster?

Yes. But it may be the cream, not the antibiotics, that does the trick. Applying antibiotic cream to a cut or wound appears to speed the healing process. One study of 48 people with infected skin blisters found that a commonly used ointment (Neosporin) healed the wounds faster than an antiseptic treatment containing hydrogen peroxide.

In the same study, however, a non-antibiotic first aid cream worked better than the peroxide, too."It's not entirely clear whether antibiotics actually help with wound healing," explains Stanford University dermatologist Hayes Gladstone, MD. Instead, the protective cover the cream or ointment provides may encourage cells to build "bridges" to one another, the process by which skin repairs itself.

2. Our best advice

All out of antibiotic ointment? Try honey. Traditional doctors have long recommended the sweet, sticky stuff for treating skin injuries. Lab research shows that honey does indeed block the growth of bacteria. A 2001 review found that six out of seven studies showed honey to be an effective treatment for healing wounds and eradicating infections.

3. Do the creams reduce scarring?

Maybe. Makers of some antibiotic ointments claim that their products minimize scarring. While no over-the-counter salve can prevent scars, Dr. Gladstone says applying an antibiotic cream may help smooth them over somewhat. Once again, however, the effect probably isn't due to the antibiotics. Instead, the cream keeps the wound moist, which may have the added benefit of softening a scar's appearance.

4. Should you use the creams?

Yes. With concerns about the rising problem of antibiotic resistance, why use one of these ointments at all?

The answer: to prevent the number one complication that may occur when you have a cut or wound — infection. No matter how commendable your personal hygiene may be, everyone has bacteria on their skin. A cut or wound is an open door for these germs, so applying antibiotic cream makes sense.

One study found that only about five percent of skin wounds treated with antibiotic therapy became infected compared with nearly 18 percent treated with petroleum jelly.

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