What are emollients?

Emollient skin products 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. They are sold as creams, gels, lotions, ointments and sprays.

Emollients 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.

They are safe to use but can soak into clothing, dressings and bedding leaving a flammable residue.

Why should I be concerned?

Regular use of these products, over a number of days, can lead to them soaking into your clothing, bedding, bandages and dressings. This residue then dries within the fabric. If you 

  • Accidentally drop a cigarette, lighted match or lighter.
  • Sit too near to a gas, halogen or open fire.
  • Catch your clothing on a hob when cooking.

you can cause a fire to develop within seconds - burning intensely and spreading rapidly. This could lead to a serious injury or death. 

What can I do to make sure I’m safe?


  • Never smoke in bed.
  • If there is any chance your clothing could be contaminated with emollient products.
    • Do not smoke.
    • Do not cook.
    • Or 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 will reduce some of the contamination but may not remove it completely – so the risk remains.
  • Share this information with family and friends so that they are also aware of the potential risks.

Pauline Taylor’s story

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 emollient for her psoriasis. 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.

Portrait photo of Pauline Taylor.