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Bandage Alternatives — What To Use When You Don’t Have Bandages

An adhesive bandage and a first aid kit on a table

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Sharon McCulloch

Sometimes, even when all you need is a simple bandage, there just isn’t one around. Maybe you forgot to stock up on your home or workplace’s first aid kit, or maybe you’re an avid hiker and you’re miles away from help. It doesn’t matter if the injury you need to care for is a small one, if you don’t get a bandage on it quickly enough, then it’s only going to get worse. The wound might even end up getting infected.

Fortunately, bandages are versatile things. They come in a wide range of materials and are designed for an equally wide range of purposes. This means that in an emergency, there are plenty of things likely to be on hand that can fill the role of a bandage.

However, it’s important to note that not all the following ideas are going to work for everyone 100% of the time. Further, whatever course of action you end up taking, always remember to switch out your substitute for a real bandage as one becomes available, and always seek professional medical advice ASAP after the injury.


What is a Bandage?

You might not think that defining a bandage is necessary, but understanding what a bandage is essential for understanding what it does, which is essential for knowing how to best replace one with a substitute. Further, the term bandage is often confused with the term dressing. A dressing is the material applied directly to a wound, while a bandage is the material used to hold a dressing in place. By this definition, band-aids are not an example of a bandage, as many people believe.

There are also many types of bandages, each one serving a specific purpose. Gauze or roller bandages are the kind you most commonly think of when you hear the word bandage. Then there are triangular bandages; you’ll most typically see a triangular bandage used as a sling. There is the compression bandage, an elastic tubular band that slides over a sprained joint.

Plastic bandages that can be used in First Aid


When You Should and Shouldn’t Substitute a Bandage

There are some instances when it may be better to let a wound “breathe” rather than covering it with a temporary bandage. These cases typically involve superficial wounds that are not actively bleeding and are considered clean, dry, and free from any foreign debris. In such situations, allowing the wound to remain uncovered promotes the natural healing process by facilitating air exposure, which aids in drying out the wound and forming a scab.

However, it’s important to note that most wounds will benefit from being covered with a clean, individually wrapped bandage or dressing. This helps protect against infection, keeps the wound moist, and provides an optimal environment for healing.

Key considerations for letting a wound breathe include:

Small superficial cuts or scratches: minor cuts or scrapes that are shallow and not at risk of being irritated or contaminated may benefit from exposure to air. However, ensure the wound is clean and there is no excessive bleeding.

Skin conditions: certain skin conditions, like superficial dermatitis or rashes, may benefit from exposure to air to help soothe and dry out the affected area.


Homemade Alternatives

When an injury occurs at home, in the workplace, or in any other similar, safe and indoor environment, there are plenty of alternatives to be found for bandages if your closest first aid kit isn’t fully stocked.

Here are a few options:

Band-aids: while not normally a substitute for a bandage or dressing, if the wound or abrasion is small enough that it can be entirely covered with a band-aid then one should do just fine.

Clean cloth or fabric: a clean cloth or fabric can be used as an improvised bandage. Ensure it is clean and free from any dirt or contaminants before using it to cover a wound.

Clean handkerchiefs: if you have clean handkerchiefs available, they can be used to cover and protect the wound temporarily. However, keep in mind that these may not be as absorbent as proper bandages.

Paper towels, toilet paper, or tissue paper: in situations where no other options are available, clean paper towels or tissue paper can be used as a temporary bandage. Pressing them against the wound can help control bleeding to some extent.

Sanitary pads or tampons: in situations where absorbency is crucial, such as heavy blood flow wounds, clean and sterile sanitary pads or tampons can be used as makeshift dressings. Place the pad or tampon directly on the wound and secure it with tape or fabric strips.


Sticky Tape

The tape method can be used as a substitute for a bandage in certain situations, but it is important to exercise caution and select the right type of tape for the purpose.

Medical or first aid tape is typically designed for securing bandages and dressings. It is a good option as it is hypoallergenic, breathable, and gentle on the skin. Medical tape provides good adhesion while allowing for flexibility and movement. When using medical tape as a substitute for a bandage, ensure the wound is clean and covered appropriately beforehand, then tape firmly over the bandage.

On the other hand, nonmedical tapes are not suitable substitutes for a bandage, as they are generally not hypoallergenic or designed for medical use. They may contain adhesives that are not safe for direct contact with the skin and may not provide adequate breathability. Using such tapes on wounds can potentially cause skin irritation, hinder the healing process, and increase the risk of infection. These kinds of tape work best in these situations when used solely to hold a dressing made of gauze or paper towel in place.


Wilderness and Remote Alternatives

If you’re out for a hike or out camping, miles from civilisation, you need to be well-prepared for any situation. But sometimes, no matter how much planning you do, something slips your mind or gets lost along the way.

When an injury occurs in remote or wilderness situations where a bandage is not readily available, clothing such as t-shirts, socks, or bandanas can be torn or cut into strips and used as makeshift bandages. Ensure the fabric is as sterile as possible before applying it to the wound. If you can find one that’s large enough and has the means to properly secure it, a big leaf can have the same effect.


When Nothing is Available

If you do not have access to any of the above-suggested alternatives for bandages and you need to perform first aid in a remote setting or out in the wilderness, then the following are the steps you should take:

Control bleeding: apply direct pressure to the wound using your hand to help stop bleeding. Maintain pressure until professional medical help is obtained.

Clean the wound: if possible, wash the wound gently with clean water to reduce the risk of infection. Avoid using soaps or harsh substances unless it is the only option available.

Seek medical help: it is crucial to seek professional medical assistance as soon as possible to properly assess and treat the wound. This is especially important in situations where access to medical facilities is limited or in the case of deep or severe wounds.



One reason why you might not be able to use any of the suggested alternatives for bandages is because the injured person is allergic to what is available. It’s also possible that the person is allergic to bandages themselves, or that they suffer from allergic contact dermatitis or irritant contact dermatitis, which can exacerbate the wound and slow the healing process.

In such cases, consider stocking your first aid kit with hypoallergenic or non-adhesive bandages. These include silicone-based dressings, non-adhesive gauze pads, or sterile non-woven fabric.

An elastic bandage on blue background | First Aid Pro


Don’t Catch Yourself Out

Sometimes things just don’t go to plan. You can take every step possible to remember, but occasionally the time will still come when you need something vital and you realise you’ve forgotten it. Sometimes this moment will be realising your first aid kit is empty when an injury occurs. This can be one of the most devastating examples, especially if you’re away from civilisation when you break a limb or a snake bite occurs.

When you take a basic first aid course with FirstAidPro, one of the things we’ll go over with you is the importance of keeping your first aid kit fully stocked. That might seem obvious, but every step helps. We’ll also go over various forms of treating first aid, including wound management. If you do find yourself out in the wilderness without bandages, you have a better hope of managing any injuries until you can get professional medical help. For those who’ve already completed such a course, we have additional training where we go over advanced first-aid techniques.

So don’t wait for this worst to happen before taking action, take a first aid course today so that when the time comes you’re fully prepared for whatever life has to throw at you.

The content on this website offers general insights regarding health conditions and potential treatments. It is not intended as, and should not be construed as, medical advice. If you are facing a medical emergency, dial 000 immediately and follow the guidance provided.

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