People are being warned to “take care when using creams to treat dry skin conditions” as they can easily dry onto clothing, bedding and bandages making them more flammable, which can cause serious injury or death.
Worryingly, more than 50 people have died or been seriously injured over the last 10 years after their emollient cream dried on fabric and caught fire.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has now teamed up with the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), Fire and Rescue Services and health charities for a new campaign to raise awareness of the fire risk and inform skin cream users about the the precautions they need to take.
Skin creams known as emollients, are used by many people every day to help manage dry skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis and ichthyosis.
But though vital in helping to alleviate those conditions, the creams can pose a safety risk as they are easily transferred from skin onto clothing, bedding and bandages – and tests reveal the dried-on cream can make the fabric more flammable.
It could also mean if set alight the fabric will burn more quickly and intensely, which can result in serious injury or death.
Dried on emollients can even stay on fabrics despite them being washed, officials say.
However, the risk can be minimised by removing long-sleeved and loose clothing before cooking, or by using a safety lighter.
A review has shown that those most at risk tend to be over 60, smokers and those who 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 and warns them to be extra vigilant around naked flames.
“We want to ensure that those who are at greatest risk, and their carers, understand the fire risk associated with the build-up of residue on clothing and bedding and take action to minimise the risk,” advised Sarah Branch, director of MHRA's vigilance and risk management of medicines division.
“Anyone who uses emollients and has any questions or concerns should speak to a healthcare professional, such as your pharmacist or GP.”
Rick Hylton, lead of the national fire chiefs council home safety committee, added: “We now know that all emollients, combined with factors such as smoking or mobility issues, pose potential fire risks and this applies to both paraffin and paraffin-free products. Washing fabrics does not fully remove this risk.
“This doesn't mean people shouldn't use these products, but we urge people to follow the updated fire safety advice.
“If you use these products and smoke, don't do so when wearing clothes or bandages that may have dried-on emollients.
“Don't smoke in bed as bedding may have residue on it and be careful around other heat sources such as gas, halogen or open fires and when cooking.”
Despite the warning, officials are keen to iterate that those who need these creams, should keep on using them.
They point out that the creams alone are not flammable, nor are they flammable when on the body.
“These creams are vital in helping to manage dry skin conditions,” the guidance explains.
“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.”
What are emollients?
According to the NHS, emollients are moisturising treatments applied directly to the skin to soothe and hydrate it.
Emollients are often used to help manage dry, itchy or scaly skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and ichthyosis. They help prevent patches of inflammation and flare-ups of these conditions.
The creams can be used to replace lost moisture whenever your skin feels dry or tight and should be smoothed, not rubbed, into the skin gently in the same direction that your hair grows, as this helps prevent hair follicles getting blocked.
The NHS also warns about the dangers of fire when using all types of emollients (both paraffin-based and paraffin-free).
“Dressings, clothing and bedding that have been in contact with an emollient can easily catch fire,” the site warns.
“Washing fabrics at high temperatures may reduce the build-up of emollients, but does not remove it entirely.”