Emollients - do you know what they are and whether they are in your skin products?
Emollients are non-cosmetic moisturisers which come in the form of creams, ointments, lotions and gels. Emollients help skin to feel more comfortable and less itchy. They keep the skin moist and flexible, helping to prevent cracks.
Following five deaths in West Yorkshire since 2015, West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service are raising public awareness about the potential fire risks so that emollient skin products are used safely and everyone stays safe and well within their home.
What are emollient skin products?
They are moisturisers which may contain paraffin, shea or cocoa butter, beeswax, lanolin, nut oil or mineral oils and they work by covering the skin with a protective film or barrier which keeps the moisture in.
Are they only prescribed by doctors?
Emollients are commonly prescribed by GPs, nurses and other clinicians over long periods of time to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema and sores. Many of these products can also be purchased over the counter in chemists and supermarkets.
Are they safe to use?
Yes they are. We encourage their use as recommended by medical professionals and the manufacturer’s instructions.
Are they flammable?
No. If you put a match to a sample of emollient skin product it would not ignite.
So, why should I be concerned?
Regular use of these products, over a number of days, can lead to them soaking into your clothing, bedding and bandages/dressings. This residue then dries within the fabric. If you then introduce an ignition or heat source such as accidentally
Dropping a cigarette, lighted match or lighter
Sitting too near to a gas, halogen or open fire
Catching your clothing on a hob when cooking you can cause a fire to develop, burn intensely and spread rapidly. This could lead to a serious injury or death.
Nationally, there have been at least 56 deaths associated with emollient skin products within the last 10 years.
What can I do to make sure I’m safe?
Never smoke in bed
Do not smoke if there is any chance your clothing or dressings could be contaminated with these products
Do not cook if there is any chance your clothing or dressings could be contaminated with these products
Do not sit too close to any open fires, gas fires or halogen heaters
Wash your clothing and bedding daily at the highest temperature recommended by the fabric care instructions. This should reduce some of the contamination but may not remove it completely.
Download a PDF here on caring for people who use paraffin-based creams, airflow or oxygen equipment. It has some great advice on how to stay safe.
Case study – Pauline Taylor’s story
Pauline Taylor was a 74 year old grandmother who lived alone in a flat in Huddersfield. She had been a regular smoker throughout her life. In early 2015, her health deteriorated and she had become bed bound. Despite requests from her daughters to stop smoking, she continued to do so in bed. She had several daily visits from her supportive family, care staff and the district nursing team and received daily applications of Zerobase for her psoriasis. This product is a paraffin-based moisturiser with 11% paraffin content. On 29 May 2015, Pauline received a visit from one of her carers late in the evening and was presenting as expected. However, just under five hours later the care line was activated and West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service and members of her family were alerted. The fire crew entered the property using breathing apparatus but unfortunately Pauline had died. The subsequent Coroner’s hearing found that matches and emollient creams had accelerated the fire and contributed to its intensity. Pauline’s daughters have since been campaigning alongside us to raise public and health professional awareness around this issue.
Case study – Brian Bicat’s story
Brian Bicat was 82 years old and well known on the Bradford jazz scene. He lived with his wife in a first floor flat. He used Diprobase cream and Hydromol ointment for a long term skin condition and more recently ulcerated legs. Each morning, while his wife went to the local park for a short walk, Brian sat outside on the balcony having a cigarette and completing a puzzle. On 22 September 2017 Brian was on the balcony in his dressing gown which he had double-knotted and often used to pat himself dry after a shower and application of emollient. Whilst lighting a cigarette he dropped the cigarette, a match or lighter on his dressing gown accidentally setting it alight. By the time he had run to the bathroom, the dressing gown was fully alight. He managed to douse himself in the shower and by the time his wife returned he was sitting on the side of the bed. She immediately called 999 and Brian was airlifted to Pinderfields where he sadly died that evening. Brian and his wife had not been informed by any of the health professionals working with him that these emollients could leave a flammable residue on dressings, bedding and clothing.