Paraffin-based skin emollients on dressings or clothing: fire risk

Smoking or a naked flame could cause patients’ dressings or clothing to catch fire when being treated with paraffin-based emollient that is in contact with the dressing or clothing.

Reminder for healthcare professionals:

  • Advise patients not to: smoke; use naked flames (or be near people who are smoking or using naked flames); or go near anything that may cause a fire while emollients are in contact with their medical dressings or clothing
  • Change patient clothing and bedding regularly—preferably daily—because emollients soak into fabric and can become a fire hazard
  • Incidents should be reported to NHS England’s Serious Incident Framework (includes Wales), or to the Health and Social Care Boards in Northern Ireland; for questions regarding alerts in Scotland, contact Healthcare Improvement Scotland

When patients are being treated with a paraffin-based emollient product that is covered by a dressing or clothing, there is a danger that smoking or using a naked flame could cause dressings or clothing to catch fire. We informed healthcare professionals of this risk in January 2008.

Examples of paraffin-based emollients include:

  • white soft paraffin
  • white soft paraffin plus 50% liquid paraffin
  • emulsifying ointment

The risk is greater when these preparations are applied to large areas of the body, or when dressings or clothing become soaked with emollient.

We are aware of a recent fatal incident reported to the NHS England National Reporting and Learning System, in which a naked flame ignited emollient in contact with a patient’s dressings and clothing.

Posters have previously been available from the National Patient Safety Agency, and may be a useful source of information for local use.

Article citation: Drug Safety Update volume 9 issue 9, April 2016: 9.

Post-publication note

Amendments were made to this article in December 2018 to refresh links and formatting.

Published 18 April 2016