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The investigation of the fire risk of clothes contaminated with different skin emollients and paraffin based personal care products

About This PhD Project

Project Description

Research Group: Forensic & Investigative Sciences Research Group -

Proposed supervisory team: Dr Sarah Hall ()
Joanne Morrissey ()

Theme: Forensic Analysis, Fire investigation

Summary of the research project

We are currently investigating, in collaboration with Essex, West Yorkshire and London Fire and Rescue Services, the increased flammability of clothing soaked in paraffin based skin care products, after a number of fatalities linked with the use of skin emollients. We also have support from the British Burns Association and British Association of Dermatologists, who are strong advocates of the value of this work. There has been a lot of recent media coverage on a number of accidental deaths attributed to the use of skin care ointments. These products are applied quite liberally on large areas of skin and consequently soak into clothing and if these are not changed or re-worn, the amount of the paraffin based ointment builds up.

Our recent results using standard methods for the testing the flammability of textiles, have shown shorter ignition times when clothing is soaked in such products and increased flame heights. This supports our hypothesis that the clothing is behaving as a wick and is able to generate enough vapours to increase the potential for ignition, increase flammability and burn time. This is of concern if a source of ignition such as cigarette or cooker lighters, matches or a lit candle, are available and if the person is elderly or immobile and not able to react in a timely manner before serious injury or death occurs.

We have previously published a joint UG study on the increased flame height of clothing when soaked in skin care ointments at a conference and want to continue with our research in the following areas:

1. Testing the amount including repeated applications and hence the accumulation of skin care products and the affect and risk of flammability on different clothing types (i.e. some types might not act as wick)

2. Testing the time of ignition, flame temperature, flame height, heat release rate and types of ignition of different personal care products including different % paraffin based products when soaked in clothing

3. To assess the effective removal of such products from clothing, after different methods of laundering and if the clothing is still flammable

4. Collaborate with various organisations and manufacturers and investigating the occurrence of such fires

5. The possible addition of flame retardants to such products

6. Analysing the volatiles from the emollients using headspace extraction and GC-MS

This research will result in us and our collaborators offering valuable advice on the safer use of such skin emollients and other paraffin based care products. This could include guidance on how to wash clothes soaked in such products; in particular when used by the elderly, infirm or disabled.

The overall aims of this research is public awareness and highlighting the safer use of paraffin based ointments by distributing it initially to and via organisations that represent those with skin problems and care for the elderly and disabled. By increasing the awareness of the potential fire risks of paraffin based ointments and other related products, when soaked in clothing, it is hoped that we can change routines in their application, especially targeting groups who are at potential risk. We also hope to pass our findings on to the relevant regulatory authorities as call for a change of policy in public awareness of the risk of such products when soaked into clothing.

Where you’ll study:

Cambridge -


This project is self-funded.

Details of studentships for which funding is available are selected by a competitive process and are advertised on our jobs website as they become available:

Next steps:

If you wish to be considered for this project, you will need to apply for our Forensic & Investigative Sciences PhD ( In the section of the application form entitled ’Outline research proposal’, please quote the above title and include a research proposal.

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