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Medicine: Our skin has no chance against water vapor burns


Hot steam penetrates directly through the pores of the skin

Are the potatoes ready? Is the water boiling already? Anyone who works in the kitchen quickly comes into contact with hot steam. Anyone who has ever burned it knows how quickly it can be done. A team of researchers took a closer look at the effects of hot steam on human skin and documented how our skin is exposed to hot vapors without protection.

The wounds after steam burning look rather harmless on the surface. Usually only a reddening can be seen. However, the real damage lies in the lower skin and should not be underestimated. Hot water vapor easily penetrates the pores of the upper skin layer and causes almost invisible severe burns in the lower skin layers. The scientists at the research institute Empa recently published their study results in the journal "Nature Scientific Reports".

Skin burns from water vapor are particularly tricky

The Empa researchers report that skin burns caused by water vapor are often particularly tricky. With this type of burn, the surface of the skin can remain largely intact, while severe damage occurs under the skin. This is primarily because our skin is unable to protect us from hot vapors. In dry heat, our skin offers some protection against high temperatures. Water vapor, on the other hand, penetrates the skin and damages directly.

Steam overcomes the protective functions

"We were able to show that the top layer of skin, the epidermis, cannot properly perform its protective function against water vapor," explains the head of the research group René Rossi in a press release on the study results. The steam penetrates through the pores of the skin onto the lower layer of skin, which is called the dermis or dermis. Only there does the steam condense, which releases the thermal energy it contains and directly triggers second-degree burns.

About the study

Pig skin served as a test object due to its similarity to human skin. This was exposed to hot water vapor. The scientists then examined the water content in the various skin layers using what is known as Raman spectroscopy. This analysis method provides information about material properties based on the scattering of the light. The researchers showed that hot water vapor can penetrate deeper layers of the skin much faster than dry heat.

The pores of the top layer of skin are larger than a water molecule

The research results show that the pores of the top layer of skin are larger than the water molecules. For this reason, the steam simply moves through the top layer of skin. After about 15 seconds, the epidermis swells due to the absorbed water, which closes the pores and prevents further penetration. However, massive damage has already occurred in the lower skin layers.

The afterburn effect of the skin

To make matters worse, according to the scientists, the skin is a poor heat conductor. Absorbed heat can only be released very slowly. This creates an afterburn effect in which the heat still causes damage to the skin after the heat source no longer acts on the skin. According to the researchers, this effect is particularly strong in the case of burns caused by steam, since the heat penetrates quickly and deeply into the skin.

Fast relief measures alleviate the effect

"When burning steam, the skin has to be cooled for a long time," reports Rossi. According to the expert, two minutes in an ice bath or ice-cold water is not enough to dissipate the high amount of energy from the deeper layers of the skin. You can find further aids in the article Home remedies for burns. (vb)

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