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Thermal burns associated with the use of ointments

Author: Dr Isabelle Lewis, House Officer, Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, New Zealand. DermNet New Zealand Editor in Chief: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. September 2017.



Paraffin-based ointments and creams are often used to treat common skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis. Unfortunately, they are potential fire hazards. Ointments and creams are applied directly onto the skin, as well as onto dressings and clothing. Paraffin-soaked fabrics are easily ignited with a naked flame or cigarette resulting in serious thermal burns or death.

Risks include:

    • Smoking, or being near to those who are smoking
    • Exposure to an open flame (or any possible cause of ignition).

Paraffin-based emollients

Advice to patients in all settings

Patients should be informed of the fire hazard associated with paraffin-based products when they are first prescribed, both in an inpatient and outpatient setting.   

  • Discourage patients from smoking, and offer practical advice on quitting; if patients intend to smoke, advise them to wear a thick outer covering that is free of paraffin.
  • Stress the importance of frequently washing any clothing and bedding that is exposed to paraffin.
  • Encourage patients to share this information about the fire risk with paraffin with their relatives.

Paraffin fire hazard in the media

Paraffin-containing skin creams have recently come into the spotlight after being linked to several deaths from fire. One BBC article reported that there have been 37 fire deaths in England since 2010 that have been linked to these creams.  

Paraffin-based products

  • White soft paraffin
  • White soft paraffin plus 50% liquid paraffin
  • Emulsifying ointment.

Alternatives to paraffin-based products

Less greasy emollient creams with a lower fire hazard may be suitable alternatives.



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