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Safe use of emollients and skin creams

Skin creams dried on fabric can lead to fire deaths (MHRA 29 July 2020).

Some skin creams, when dried on to fabric, can create a highly flammable combination that can cause serious injury and death. Research has shown that the risk arises, even if the creams do not contain paraffin.

Emollient skin creams are used by thousands of people every day to manage dry, itchy or scaly skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and ichthyosis. They are easily transferred from skin on to clothing and bedding. When fabric with dried-on cream comes into contact with a naked flame, the resulting fire burns quickly and intensely and can result in serious injury or death.

The risk increases with every application of the cream as it transfers, dries and builds up on the fabric. Some cream remains even when the items are washed, so it’s important to minimise the risk in additional ways, such as removing long sleeved or loose clothing before cooking or using a safety lighter.

These creams are vital in helping to manage dry skin conditions. The creams alone are not flammable, nor are they flammable when on the body. Healthcare professionals should continue to recommend them for chronic dry skin conditions and those using them should continue to do so as directed while remaining alert to the risk of fire when dried on to fabric.

The MHRA, National Fire Chiefs Council, Fire and Rescue Services, and health charities have launched a campaign to raise awareness of the fire risk and the precautions that need to be taken when using skin creams. The guidance includes a “Safe Use of Emollients” video, posters and web links to provide further advice and resources to help minimise the risk when using emollients.

The following recommendations should be given to people who use emollients:

  • Avoid smoking whilst wearing clothing or a bandage that has been in contact with skin creams
  • Change and wash clothes and bedding frequently to reduce build-up of skin cream
  • Keep cream off furniture
  • Tell relatives and carers about your treatment and ask how they can help reduce the risk
  • Tell your healthcare professional if you normally smoke

Since 2010, more than 50 deaths and serious injuries have been linked to the use of emollient skin creams. A review has shown that those most at risk tend to be over 60, smokers and have reduced mobility. The MHRA recommends anyone in this high-risk group, or their carers, should arrange a fire service assessment of their personal surroundings. They must exercise caution when close to naked flames or potential ignition sources (for example, lighting a cigarette).