We analysed 298 bursts of the low-mass X-ray binary 4U 1636−53 using data from the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer. We divided the bursts into three groups, photospheric radius expansion (PRE), hard non-PRE and soft non-PRE bursts, based on the properties of the bursts and the state of the source at the time of the burst. For the three types of bursts, we found that the average relation between the bolometric flux and the temperature during the cooling phase of the bursts is significantly different from the canonical F∝T4 relation that is expected if the apparent emitting area on the surface of the neutron star remains constant as the flux decreases during the decay of the bursts. We also found that a single power law cannot fit the average flux–temperature relation for any of the three types of bursts and that the flux–temperature relation for the three types of bursts is significantly different. Finally, for the three types of bursts, the temperature distribution at different flux levels during the decay of the bursts is significantly different. From the above we conclude that hard non-PRE bursts ignite in a hydrogen-rich atmosphere, whereas for soft non-PRE and PRE bursts the fuel is helium-rich. We further conclude that the metal abundance in the neutron-star atmosphere decreases as the bursts decay, probably because the heavy elements sink faster in the atmosphere than H or He.