Do Paraffin Based Creams Increase The Risk Of Getting Burnt?

There is a very serious and worthy video online made by the West Yorkshire police about the risks of medical creams that contain paraffin. I get what they are thinking. Policemen do of course look younger all the time, but no doubt there are still some that are old enough to remember paraffin heaters. These large but portable oil fired devices were a must to get through a cold English winter in the days before central heating. They might even remember the little paraffin burners with cotton wicks that were used in chemistry sets. I certainly do. So you can see why they might be worried. It really doesn’t sound like a good idea to get paraffin onto towels.

And they had an illustration of the risks involved when an elderly woman was involved in a house fire. It got out of hand and killed her. She suffered from a skin condition and had cream soaked towels around her at the time of the unfortunate incident.

This was backed up when they did some experiments that showed that towels soaked in cream burnt more strongly than towels on their own. When you follow it on the video it all looks pretty impressive and rather scary. 

The trouble is that despite the impressive and well meaning efforts of the constabulary,  it doesn’t really add up to an actual problem.

Creams don’t catch fire even if they contain paraffin.   Just because a cream contains a flammable material it doesn’t make the cream flammable.  Alcohol is flammable but a pint of beer is not. But it isn’t true that creams contain flammable materials anyway. The term paraffin covers a range of materials, only some of which are flammable.  The ones in skin creams aren’t.  So creams don’t contain flammable material anyway. Even if they did, and creams were actually flammable that doesn’t make them a health risk. We are surrounded all the time with flammable things.  Clothes.  Newspapers. Bottles of gin.  We avoid getting burnt not by keeping clear of flammable materials but by managing ignition sources like matches carefully.

The result of the honest and diligently performed experiment is easily explained. A great many things will burn if they get hot enough – and this does include the oily components of skin creams. This isn’t just medical ones with paraffin as an ingredient. Creme de la Mer will burn quite nicely if you get it hot enough. As will the pack it comes in. Most things are potential fuel for a fire once it gets going. Even iron burns if you can get to a high enough temperature as any fireman will tell you.

But sadly there is no scare story so implausible or manifestly ridiculous that there isn’t a journalist somewhere who will publish it. And this one sounds more plausible than most. The Daily Mail went with

Emollient creams can build up in clothes and lead to FIRE DEATHS whether they have a high paraffin content or not, health officials warn

Interestingly the Mail frames the story as one where the known risks of paraffin have now been extended to other ingredients. I get calls from the Mail from time to time so I know how they work. What I imagine happened was they asked if paraffin was a risk and they were told it was no worse than any other ingredient. So in journalism-think that was great. It wasn’t just an issue. It was one where new risks were still coming to light!  These kinds of stories are often handled by freelancers who have to put food on the table.  I can see the motivation to talk things up.   They need some dramatic risk to scare the readers with.   The prospect of getting paid is much higher with something dangerous.  But that doesn’t alter the fact that this is pretty much a non-story.

So if you have a skin condition which is helped by applying a cream of some of kind, medical or non medical, you really don’t need to worry. You aren’t at any more risk of fire. The small amount of extra combustible material is insignificant.

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