Paraffin-Based Skin Creams Pose Fire Risk, So Should You Ditch Them?

'All oils carry a flammability risk.'

Creams used to treat skin conditions like eczema pose a major fire risk and may have contributed to hundreds of deaths, the fire service has warned.

Chris Bell from West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service said the creams soak into fabrics including bedding and clothing, which can easily ignite if they come into contact with naked flames, cigarettes or any other heat source. “Hundreds of thousands of people use them, we’re not sure how many fire deaths might have occurred but it could be into the hundreds,” he told BBC 5 Live.

The reason some of the products are flammable is because they contain paraffin. An investigation by BBC 5 Live found just seven out of 38 products containing paraffin carried fire warnings on their packaging.

So should you be switching your paraffin-based skin products for a safer substitute?

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Dr Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, advises against ditching your creams just yet. Instead, she says you should be well aware of the risks and do all you can to minimise them.

Emollients are a critical part of treating inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis, ichthyosis or eczema. They work by reducing water loss from the skin and covering the skin with a protective film. Nearly all emollients contain liquid paraffin or white soft paraffin, both of which are flammable.

But then, so are many other types of cream as Dr Wedgeworth explains: “It is important to note that all oils carry a flammability risk. A large proportion of over-the-counter products will contain mineral oils, because these are very effective at repairing the skin barrier function. The higher the percentage of these oils, the greater the risk, so thick greasy ointments or pure paraffin creams will have the highest risk of being flammable.”

She adds that even more ‘natural’ alternatives such as pure shea butter, glycerin or coconut oil still have a flammability risk. So the best thing you can do is to be aware of the dangers and stay safe.

The NHS advises people using these products to keep clear of fire, flames and cigarettes as dressings and clothing soaked with the ointment can be easily ignited. Meanwhile the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency says people should change their clothing and bedding regularly to reduce the fire risk.

Stuart Gale, owner and chief pharmacist at Oxford Online Pharmacy adds: “Users should be careful when cooking over an open gas flame, they should absolutely avoid smoking and the use of naked flames, such as candles near their beds - as they are effectively making themselves into a human fire-lighter.”

He says pharmacists have an obligation to explain the risks to patients too and adds: “We would welcome proper, highly visible warnings [on packaging], to ensure there is no confusion on the part of the user.”