Neosporin is a brand of triple-antibiotic ointment. It contains bacitracin zinc, neomycin sulfate, and polymyxin B sulfate. Bacitracin ointment is also available, and it does not include the other two antibiotics.
While both types of cream can help treat minor scratches, cuts, and burns, many people are allergic to bacitracin.
Antibiotic ointments can help reduce the risk of infection, which is particularly important for people with weak immune systems. However, a 2018 meta-analysis found that these creams were barely more effective at preventing infection than a placebo.
In this article, learn more about the differences between Neosporin and bacitracin-only ointments and whether they are necessary.
Bacitracin and Neosporin are both topical antibiotics — medicated creams that a person can use directly on their skin.
Doctors sometimes call Neosporin “neo-bac-polym” because of the combination of antibiotics that it contains.
Some pharmacies also sell triple antibiotic ointments that are generic versions of Neosporin. The formulations in these vary among manufacturers — they may contain slightly different ingredients from Neosporin or different proportions of each ingredient.
Bacitracin ointment only contains one antibiotic. This means that Neosporin offers broader antibiotic coverage that may fight more types of bacteria.
However, no recent research has directly compared Neosporin to bacitracin-only ointment, so it is unclear whether one is safer or more effective than the other.
Doctors have used bacitracin and ointments containing it since the 1940s, when researchers discovered this antibiotic.
Bacitracin and Neosporin ointments have similar uses, including:
- keeping the wound moist to limit the chances of scarring
- reducing the risk of infection
- keeping the wound clean
- easing pain
Both ointments are for mild and uncomplicated injuries, such as minor burns, scrapes, and cuts. Neither preparation is strong enough to treat a serious skin infection or any systemic infection.
Deep wounds may require additional treatment, including stitches, oral antibiotics, or vaccinations against diseases such as tetanus.
Do not consume either ointment or use it as a substitute for medical care.
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Because both types of ointment contain bacitracin, the benefits and risks are similar.
The benefits of using Neosporin or bacitracin-only ointment include:
- Reduced scarring. Both products help keep the wound moist, which may prevent or reduce scarring.
- Reduced risk of infection. A 2018 meta-analysis found that using antibiotic ointment could slightly reduce the risk of infection. However, the researchers noted that the effects were minimal, compared with those of a placebo.
The risks of using any product that contains bacitracin include:
- Allergic reactions. In 2003, the American Contact Dermatitis Society named bacitracin Allergen of the Year because of the high risk of skin allergies. Rarely, an allergic reaction can be life threatening.
- Poor healing. An allergic reaction to bacitracin can cause a wound to heal slowly and increase the risk of dangerous skin infections, such as cellulitis.
- Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or a fever. These may result from an allergy or occur independently from a skin reaction.
- Toxicity. Too much bacitracin can be poisonous, especially when a person uses it on an open wound and the body absorbs the drug into the bloodstream. Taking bacitracin orally may damage the kidneys and is otherwise unsafe. Do not use it on the mouth or the breasts when breastfeeding.
- Antibiotic resistance. There is some concern that over-the-counter antibiotic creams may be contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance.
No large studies have assessed whether bacitracin ointment or Neosporin is safe to use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
Petroleum jelly products, such as Vaseline, can be good alternatives to bacitracin or Neosporin. The jelly keeps wounds from drying out, which can prevent or ease itching and other unpleasant symptoms.
Petroleum jelly also carries a lower risk of allergic reactions and may help keep wounds clean and reduce the risk of scarring.
Lanolin-based lotions or those containing vitamin E may also help. However, some people are allergic to lanolin. It is crucial to check ingredients lists and do a patch skin test before widely using any cream or lotion.
Beyond creams and ointments, it is important to keep wounds clean. If a person is not interested in using a cream, they should rinse the wound several times a day with mild soap and warm water.
Avoid picking at a wound. Keep it covered if it is frequently exposed to allergens or dirt, particularly if the wound is on a hand or the face.
People with itchy wounds or localized allergic reactions may find relief by using hydrocortisone cream.
Antibiotic ointments such as bacitracin and Neosporin may slightly reduce the risk of wound infection and scarring.
However, other options may work as well and present fewer risks. Most people do not need to use special ointments on minor injuries as long as they keep their wounds clean.
As with any injury, see a doctor about any signs of infection, such as swelling, intense pain, streaks of color that spread from the wound, or pus that oozes from the wound. Do not try to treat infections with ointments at home.