Flour as a Burn Remedy

Follow Standard Medical Advice Instead of an Urban Legend

White flour with scoop
PhotoStock-Israel/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Flour for burns? This viral message claims covering burned skin with plain white flour will immediately stop any pain and promote healing without so much as a blister. Medical professionals such as those at the Mayo Clinic suggest relying on proven remedies instead.

  • Description: Forwarded email / Home remedy
  • Circulating since: March 2011
  • Status: False (outdated by 150 years and potentially harmful)

Example of the Flour Email

Email text. 2011

FW: Burn Remedy
My experience with burns is this:
Once I was cooking some corn and stuck my fork in the boiling water to see if the corn was ready. I missed and my hand went into the boiling water....
A friend of mine, who was a Vietnam vet, came into the house, just as I was screaming, and asked me if I had some plain old flour...I pulled out a bag and he stuck my hand in it. He said to keep my hand in the flour for 10 minutes which I did. He said that in Vietnam, this guy was on fire and in their panic, they threw a bag of flour all over him to put the fire out...well, it not only put the flour out, but he never even had a blister!!!!
SOOOO, long story short, I put my hand in the bag of flour for 10 minutes, pulled it out and had not even a red mark or a blister and absolutely NO PAIN. Now, I keep a bag of flour in the fridge and every time I burn myself, I use the flour and never ONCE have I ever had a red spot, a burn nor a blister! *cold flour feels even better than room temperature flour.
Miracle, if you ask me. Keep a bag of white flour in your fridge and you will be happy you did. I even burnt my tongue and put the flour on it for about 10 minutes. and the pain was gone and no burn. Try it! BTW, don't run your burn area under cold water first, just put it right into the flour for 10 minutes and experience a miracle!

Analysis of the Flour for Burn Treatment Email: Don't Do It

Once upon a time — a century-and-a-half ago, to be exact—dredging a minor burn with ordinary wheat flour was considered an acceptable medical treatment, even by some physicians. But so were dressing the wound with white lead paint, greasy poultices, and turpentine-soaked cotton. All these treatments were eventually discredited and abandoned as medical knowledge progressed.

Up-do-date medical sources such as the Mayo Clinic and the American Red Cross advise treating a minor (first- or second-degree) burn by immersing it in cool water, then covering it loosely with dry, sterile gauze. Scientific studies have proven these measures effective.

The purpose of running cool water over the burn is to draw heat away from the skin, reducing swelling and pain. The purpose of a sterile bandage is to minimize airflow over the wound (which can exacerbate pain) and to protect the skin should blistering occur. It stands to reason that covering burned skin with refrigerated flour might produce some of the same benefits, but it could also cause complications (if your skin begins to blister, do you really want it coated with nonsterile flour?). Why take risks with an outmoded remedy?

There's no scientific reason to suppose (and certainly no peer-reviewed studies to prove) that plunging your scalded limb into a bag of cold flour will lead to a better prognosis than immersing it in cool water and applying a proper bandage.

Beware of all medical advice that arrives via forwarded email or viral Facebook post.

Survey of Flour as a Burn Remedy in 19th-Century Texts

For historical reference, here are quotes from medical sources. Keep in mind that at this time the standard treatment for many diseases was bloodletting. Pasteur, Koch, and Lister were just developing knowledge of germs and using an antiseptic technique. Women died of sepsis soon after childbirth because doctors did not believe in handwashing. Antibiotics wouldn't be developed until the middle of the next century.

The Retrospect of Practical Medicine and Surgery, 1848:
"Burns — To those of the first degree if not extensive nor occurring on the head and face use cold applications otherwise apply flour or carded cotton and let the dressings remain as long as cleanliness and the patient's feelings will allow. Treat burns of the second degree in the same way..."
Medical and Surgical Reporter, 1867:
"When the burn is very superficial, simply inflaming or vesicating the part, covering it up with flour, and then placing a layer of cotton over it so as to exclude the air, makes a very comfortable dressing."
The International Encyclopedia of Surgery, 1888:
"Flour is very frequently used in burns, and as it is so easily obtained, forms a common household remedy; it should be dusted over the burned or scalded parts not only freely but uniformly, so as to form a soft, thick, and soothing covering to the surface. The parts should next be enveloped in layers of cotton batting, the application of a roller bandage then keeping the dressings in position; a crust soon forms with the scrum which exudes from the excoriated cuticle, and this ordinarily should not be removed until a separation is produced by the discharge itself; or, if desired sooner, the dried crusts may be moistened and softened by the application of olive oil, the white of eggs, or of a thin, soft, flaxseed poultice."
A Manual of Surgical Treatment, 1899:
It is especially necessary to warn the practitioner against certain applications for burns which are commonly recommended. "Carron oil for example (a mixture of linseed oil and lime water), is a filthy application and is responsible for a great deal of the mortality after burns: the use of poultices or water dressings and dusting with flour are equally bad. As far as possible, the would must be treated aseptically."