Skin creams containing paraffin are a fire risk

Skin creams containing paraffin linked to fire deaths

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Skin creams containing paraffin linked to fire deaths

Media captionSkin creams containing paraffin linked to fire deaths

Skin creams containing paraffin have been linked to dozens of fire deaths across England, the BBC has learned.

The products for conditions like eczema and psoriasis can leave people at risk of setting themselves ablaze.

If people use the creams regularly but do not often change clothes or bedding, paraffin residue can soak into the fabric, making it flammable.

The medicines regulator has updated its guidance and says all creams containing paraffin should carry a warning.

Despite warnings going back more than 10 years, BBC Radio 5 live Investigates has discovered there have been 37 deaths in England since 2010 linked to the creams.


'Sneaky cigarette'

Carol Hoe's husband Philip died after accidentally setting himself on fire at Doncaster Royal Infirmary in 2006 when sparks from a cigarette reacted with the emollient cream he was covered in.

"I got a phone call from the ward sister to say can you get to the hospital as soon as possible, Philip's had an accident," she said.

"Philip had caught fire. He had sneaked off onto a landing for a sneaky cigarette, a gust of wind must have caught the lighter, and it set fire to him."

'Engulfed in flames'

Within seconds Mr Hoe, who was receiving treatment for psoriasis, was engulfed in flames and he died shortly after being transferred to another hospital in Sheffield.

"When we got there, the staff came to me and told us he was covered with 90% burns," said Mrs Hoe.

"There was nothing they could do."

The coroner at his inquest drew attention to the dangers posed by skin creams, and the now defunct National Patient Safety Agency advised that paraffin-based products are easily ignited with a naked flame if used in large quantities.

The Medicines and Health Care Products Regulatory Agency later issued two more warnings, but deaths continued to occur.

Image caption Sparks from Philip Hoe's cigarette reacted with a cream he was covered in

The coroner at the inquest into the death of 63-year-old Christopher Holyoake in Leicester in 2015 heard his bedding was covered in residue from an over-the counter dermatological cream called E45.

When the flame from his cigarette lighter came into contact with the bedding, the residue acted as an accelerant, giving Mr Holyoake little chance of surviving the fire.

After the inquest the coroner wrote to the manufacturer of E45 - outlining her concerns there were no warnings on the packaging about the product being highly flammable.

Pipe smoker died

E45 has since agreed to include a flammability warning on some products and these will find their way onto shop shelves from next month.

Also in 2015, an inquest into the death of 84-year-old John Hills heard he died in a nursing home in Worthing, West Sussex, after setting himself on fire with his pipe.

A paraffin-based cream called Cetraben had soaked into his clothes and was found to have played a part in his death.

The coroner said he was concerned the dangers associated with the cream were not widely known. The manufacturers say they intend to carry out a review of the safety information included on their product packaging.

5 live Investigates approached all 53 fire brigades in the UK to find out how many deaths had been linked to the use of paraffin-based skin creams since 2010.

Just six from England provided information - revealing the 37 fatal incidents. The majority came from the London Fire Brigade which reported 28 fatalities.

The problem has become sadly familiar to Darren Munro, borough commander for London's Wandsworth Fire Station, who has been campaigning to raise awareness.

Image caption Christopher Holyoake died after his bedding, which was covered in paraffin residue, caught fire

"In four out of the last six fatalities that I've personally attended, I would say the emollient cream has had a direct result in the flame spread and the speed at which the fire took hold," he said.

"The creams themselves aren't dangerous, it only becomes dangerous when you mix it in with other factors."

London Fire Brigade says even regular washing of night clothes and bed linen might not eliminate the danger, unless it is washed at a high temperature, as paraffin is invisible and can accumulate over time.

True scale unknown?

Mr Munro suspects the authorities are unaware of the true scale of fires related to skin creams.

"One of the fatalities that we dealt with, unfortunately, the individual had had a previous fire, which wasn't reported," he said.

"The carers or a neighbour had put the fire out, so therefore the London Fire Brigade weren't called.

"I would imagine that there have been numerous other instances where people have been injured, but because the flames have been extinguished, people haven't called the fire brigade".

Image caption Fires have been caused when a naked flame has ignited paraffin residue

Until recently, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency only asked that a flammability warning be put on packaging if a cream contained more than 50% paraffin.

The agency is now urging manufacturers to add a warning to the packaging of skin creams containing any paraffin.

And since being alerted to 5 live's findings, the organisation representing manufacturers of branded over-the-counter medicines has said it will explore whether all paraffin-based creams should carry a warning as standard.

John Smith, chief executive of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain said some manufacturers had already taken that step.

Wife's anger

He added the association wanted "to reassure people that the normal use of emollients in the home is considered appropriately safe provided the products are used in accordance with the on-pack instructions and accompanying patient information leaflet.

"Manufacturers of emollients are not at present required by regulation or statute to include fire safety warnings on packaging. Safety is nonetheless of paramount importance."

More than a decade after her husband died, this all seems too little, too late for Carol Hoe.

"To be quite honest I'm really angry because at the inquest, the coroner said that further steps should be taken to give people warnings about this and for nearly 40 more deaths to happen after Philip, I just can't understand it," she said.


Carbon Monoxide Alarms

Carbon monoxide alarms

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a highly poisonous substance produced by the incomplete burning of gas and Liquid Petroleum Gas.

This happens when a gas appliance has been incorrectly fitted, badly repaired or poorly maintained. It can also occur if flues, chimneys or vents are blocked.

Oil and solid fuels such as coal, wood, petrol and oil can also produce carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms

Carbon monoxide poisoning can kill quickly. You cannot taste, see or smell CO but the symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Breathlessness
  • Collapse
  • Loss of consciousness

Should you experience any of these symptons, see a doctor immediately and tell them your symptons may be related to carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you think there is immediate danger, call the National Gas Emergency number: 0800 111 999.

How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide alarms should be placed in rooms with fuel burning appliances, such as boilers in kitchens and fires in the lounge.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions regarding positioning, testing and replace the alarm.

  • Ensure your home has enough ventilation and airbricks are not blocked
  • Keep chimney flues free from blockages
  • Never use a purpose-built or disposable barbecue indoors
  • Get a Gas Safe registered engineer to inspect your gas appliances 

Buying a carbon monoxide alarm

When buying a CO alarm make sure it meets current British Standards or European safety standards.

Look for alarms marked with the EN 50291 standard - this may be written as BS EN 50291 or EN 50291- and that it has the CE mark on. 

Both of these markings should be visible on the packaging and product.

Free carbon monoxide alarms

Through funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government, we are offering free smoke and carbon monoxide alarms to landlords and tenants.

Free alarms for private rental properties

Apply for your free smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm

People living in rented or shared accommodation are seven times more likely to have a fire according to research from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

From October 2015, if you are a landlord you will be bound by law to:

  • install one smoke alarm on each storey of your rental property
  • install one carbon monoxide alarm in any room that contains a solid fuel burning appliance
  • test each alarm at the beginning of the tenancy

This is the minimum requirement in order to comply with the legislation, further details about the new law can be found on Alarms4Life.

For maximum protection, smoke alarms should be fitted in every room apart from the kitchen and bathroom. Heat alarms can be fitted in kitchens.

Free alarms

To help prevent more fires, through DCLG funding, free smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms are being distributed across the country to landlords, tenants and managing agents for their rental properties.

We can now allocate alarms to PRS landlords, letting agencies and tenants even if they fall outside of our risk criteria.

If you applied previously and were turned down, we would encourage you to reapply.

We estimated in London the allocation of free alarms would only be sufficient for 12% of privately rented homes. For this reason we prioritised applications from high risk areas, and individuals. We’re now satisfied that we have made suitable provision to all those that met the high risk criteria.

Who can't apply?

  • landlords who are registered providers of social housing
  • Houses in Multiple Occupations (HMOs), hostels and refuges
  • shared accommodation with the landlord or landlords family
  • long leases properties (over seven years)
  • student halls of residence
  • care homes
  • hospitals and hospices and other healthcare accommodation

Collecting the alarms

With the exception of bulk requests from managing agents, we are not able to post or deliver alarms. Instead, successful applicants will be able to collect alarms from four designated collection points across London.

If you are a managing agent and wish to make a bulk application please email:

You will be asked to select a preferred collection point when applying.

Specific details will be sent to you when you receive confirmation that your application has been successful.

Fitting alarms

Alarms should be fitted according to the manufacturer's instructions, which will be supplied with the alarms. Further installation advice can be viewed on Alarms4Life.

Apply for your free smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm

If you have any questions about the scheme please email 

If you're a tenant and you'd like some home fire safety advice, you can arrange a free Home Fire Safety Visit.


Hoarding-The Hidden Illness


Clutter can make it very difficult to escape

High levels of clutter make it much easier for a fire to start and create a greater risk of fire spreading, increasing the risk of injury and death.

It can also makes it very difficult to escape and can lead to difficulties for firefighters tackling the blaze.

Identifying clutter

To consistently identify the level of hoarding in homes across London, our fire crews use the International OCD Foundations clutter image rating.


The images above show the same room with clutter ratings one, four and nine - between one to four is normal; five and nine is cause for concern.

Book a home fire safety visit

We’re asking for people with hoarding tendencies; their friends and family to get in contact and arrange a free home fire safety visit.

The visit will give firefighters a chance to work with a person who might have a dangerous amount of clutter in their home and make sure they know what to do if there is a fire and how to escape.

Request a home fire safety visit


How at risk of fire is your home?

As part of a our free, home fire safety visit we will assess your home and offer advice on how to make it safer; where appropriate we will fit a smoke alarm.

The home fire safety visit is usually for people regarded as having a higher risk of fire in the home, such as:

  • Older people living alone
  • People with mobility, vision or hearing impairments
  • People accessing mental health service users
  • Those liable to intoxication through alcohol and/or drug use

Visits shouldn't last more than a few minutes and could significantly help prevent fires.

Book your free home fire safety visit

If you are concerned that your home may be at risk of fire, or you know someone who you think needs our help, you can arrange a free home fire safety visit.

Free Smoke alarms-Fire Safety Visits

There are a number of ways that a fire can start and the effects can be devastating. For example, the fires caused by smoking materials (including cigarettes, roll-ups, cigars and pipe tobacco) result in more deaths than any other fire.

How we live and the way we use equipment can significantly reduce the risk of a fire starting.

There’s no better way of dealing with a fire than preventing it from starting in the first place.

The London Fire Brigade offer free home fire safety visits, targeting vulnerable people most at risk.


What is a home fire safety visit?

A home fire safety visit is a chance to assess any fire risks that may be present in your home. You will be visited at home and offered advice on how to make your home safer and where appropriate smoke alarms will be fitted for free.

Who is eligible?

Our home fire safety visits are usually for people and places at higher risk of fire. This might be older people living alone, people with mobility, vision and hearing impairment and individuals whose profile may make them more vulnerable to the risk of fire.

Why request a visit?

Preventing fires is the London Fire Brigade’s goal. If you're worried that your home is at risk of fire, or know someone who you think needs our help, then arrange a visit.

Please visit: and complete the online form or,  to contact your local fire safety centre

Or, call:

08000 28 44 28

Textphone: 020 7960 3629 is available for deaf and hard of hearing people or view our BSL playlist on our YouTube channel.

Candle Safety

Candles are actually a rising cause of fire. Every year, a growing number of people are killed or injured because they are careless with them. By following these guidelines, you can reduce the risks that come with using candles.

For many people of all ages, candles are at the centre of birthdays, family occasions, religious festivals and the home itself.

Candles, scented candles, oil and incense burners and joss sticks will be part of these celebrations.

However candles as with any naked flame, can be a cause of fire, especially in the home... and particularly where there are children.

Using candles safely in your home

Keep these safety tips in mind whenever you use candles at home:

  • put them on a heat-resistant surface – and be especially careful with night lights and tea lights, which get hot enough to melt plastic;
    TVs are not fire-resistant objects
  • make sure they are held firmly upright by the holder so they won't fall over; the holder needs to be stable too, so it won't fall over either
  • don't put candles near curtains, or other fabrics or furniture - and keep them out of draughts 
  • don't put them under shelves - make sure there's at least one metre (three feet) between a candle and any surface above it
  • keep clothes and hair away from the naked flame - if there's any chance you could forget a candle is there and lean across or brush past it, put it somewhere else
  • candles should always be sited out of the reach of children and away from areas that pets can get into
  • leave at least four inches (10 cms) between any two candles
  • extinguish candles before moving them and don't let anything fall into the hot wax, like matchsticks
  • don't leave them burning – you should extinguish candles before you leave a room; never go to sleep with a candle still burning and never leave a burning candle or oil burner in a child's bedroom
  • use a snuffer or a spoon to put them out - blowing them can send sparks and hot wax flying – and double-check that they're completely out and not still smoldering