Burns are damage to the skin caused by heat or chemicals. Injuries caused by hot liquids or steam are called scalds.
Burns can cause:
- Red and/or peeling skin
- White/charred skin
The pain you feel may not reflect the seriousness of the burn. In some cases, severe burns cause little or no pain.
Many burns heal with minimal scarring, but deeper wounds can cause lifelong scars. This can cause emotional and psychological impacts such as low confidence and self-esteem – but help is available to help you overcome these challenges. On this page, we discuss burns and how they are treated, and explore the support that is available to help you with the impact of scarring from burns.
You may wish to read this page alongside our page on scarring.
The skin is made up of three layers:
- Epidermis, the outer layer.
- Dermis, the layer of tissue just underneath.
- Subcutaneous fat, a deeper layer of fat and tissue.
Broadly speaking, the seriousness of a burn is linked to its depth. There are four types of burn, linked to different depths of the skin.
Superficial epidermal burn
These minor burns involve damage to the epidermis and do not cause blistering.
Superficial dermal burn
These burns involve damage to the epidermis and also some damage to the dermis. They become pink and painful and small blisters may appear. They tend to heal within seven days.
Both types of superficial burn are also known as “first degree burns”.
Deep dermal / partial thickness burn
Both the epidermis and dermis are damaged. Skin becomes red, blotchy, swollen and blistered, and may be dry or moist. The wound may be very painful or painless.
These are also known as second degree burns.
Full thickness burn
This is the most serious type of burn, in which all three layers are damaged. The skin is burnt away and the tissue underneath appears pale or blackened. Any remaining skin may be dry with no blisters, and have a leathery or waxy texture. It may appear white, brown or black in colour.
Full thickness burns are also known as third degree burns.
Burns are caused by dry heat sources, such as:
- An iron
- An electricity source
- UV light (sunburn or burns from sunbeds)
Injuries caused by hot liquid or steam are called scalds.
Injuries caused by acid and other chemicals are referred to as burns not scalds, even when they are caused by the chemical in liquid form. They are sometimes called “caustic burns”.
Immediate steps must be taken in the event of a burn or scald. You can read about first aid procedures and what is likely to happen if you go to hospital here on the NHS website, and also find out when to seek medical help.
If the burn goes deeper than the top layer of the skin, a skin graft might be needed as the wound will be unable to heal by itself.
How long does it take for a burn to heal?
The length of time it takes for a burn to heal depends on how large and deep it is. As a rule:
- Superficial epidermal and superficial dermal burns usually heal in around seven to 14 days, leaving little scarring.
- Deep and severe wounds may take months or years to heal and usually leave some scarring. You may also experience ongoing itching and pain, and sensitivity to sunlight.
- To avoid blistering and other harm, you should try to avoid exposing the damaged skin to the sun for the first three years after the burn. Once healed, you should cover the burn with cotton clothing or provide shade with a hat if it is on your face and use sunscreen with SPF 50. This applies to newly grafted skin as well.
- You can reduce the risk of scarring once the wound has healed by applying an emollient (a substance which softens and soothes the skin) two to three times a day and using high SPF sunscreen when in the sun.
- You may be asked to wear “pressure garments” (close fitting clothes made of Lycra). This can help reduce the appearance of scarring.
After receiving a burn, some people experience psychological symptoms including anxiety, stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you experience these impacts or your consultant thinks you are at risk of them, you may be referred to a clinical psychologist. They will help you with things such as PTSD, anxiety around treatment, sleep problems, pain management, self-confidence and adjusting to a change of appearance. If you’re not referred and you feel it would be helpful to you, ask your consultant about this.
Superficial burns heal without causing significant long-term scarring. However, moderate or severe burns may cause permanent scarring, discolouration and changes to the shape of the affected area.
Scar or graft areas may appear dark pink, deep red or purple because of changes to the blood circulation. This may become more noticeable when the temperature changes or when you are exercising. Your natural skin colour may return after healing. Deeper burns tend to have a different colour to the rest of your skin. Damage to oil and sweat glands may also result in dryness and a dry appearance.
Further skin grafts may be required once the wound has healed and this may help with pain and discomfort as well as the appearance of the burn.
Some people find that scarring from burns can affect self-confidence and self-esteem, particularly if it is on a part of your body which is visible in public.
It can take time to adjust to the change in appearance and at first you may feel self-conscious going out in public. You may be more aware of people looking at you, and this can be uncomfortable. Some people may ask questions or make comments about your appearance.
Support is available to help you overcome these challenges. Please read the next section for more information about the help you can access.
If you are struggling with the impacts of a burn on your appearance, help is available.
Here at Changing Faces, our trained wellbeing practitioners can offer confidential, one-to-one sessions as part of our counselling and wellbeing support service – and many people find it useful to talk through their thoughts, feelings and experiences. We also have a wide range of self-help materials including guides which cover issues such as loss of identity, self-esteem and confidence-building exercises.
You do not have to hide your scars to fit in with other people’s expectations. However, if you decide that reducing the appearance of your scars is the right option for you, we may be able to help through our Skin Camouflage Service. Skin camouflage is the use of specialist, highly pigmented creams and powders that can be used to reduce the appearance of a mark, scar or skin condition. Our Skin Camouflage Service is recommended by the NHS and you can read about in this dedicated section of our website.
Skin camouflage can reduce the appearance of burns by matching to the surrounding skin colour but it does not change the texture of the skin or alter raised/indented skin. In our Skin Camouflage Service, we cannot apply skin camouflage to skin that is infected, inflamed, or broken.
We offer a range of other support for people with scarring from burns, including:
- Online Community: An online chat where you can talk to others with scarring from burns and other visible differences. Moderated by Changing Faces staff.
- Peer Group Chat Service: A facilitated online support group which takes place on Zoom or via a chatroom, with up to eight participants.
- Workshops for children and young people and their parents: An opportunity to meet others and learn tools, tips and techniques for managing challenges with your visible difference.
- Real stories: Read stories by people living with burn-related scars.
If you would like to enquire about our services, please contact our Support and Information Line. As well as acting as a gateway to our services, our team can also provide support calls so you can talk about the impact of scarring from burns on your life.