Is Your Skin Product a Fire Hazard?

flammable skin products

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dry skin is more than a cosmetic problem, as cracked skin allows bacteria to enter and increase your risk of infection, but some heavy emollient creams are flammable and most contain toxic chemicals
  • The flammable ingredient is paraffin wax, made from a refined and bleached petroleum byproduct that temporarily makes your skin “feel” smooth, but has no long-lasting benefit
  • Dry skin is best treated from the inside out by increasing your intake of animal-based omega-3 fat; the best sources are found in small fish at the bottom of the food chain that contain less pollutants from the environment
  • External and internal use of coconut oil has a number of health benefits, including improving your heart health, collagen production, lowering bacterial growth on your skin and moisturizing your skin

By Dr. Mercola

Dry skin, or other skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, may prompt you to purchase heavy emollient creams to take care of the problem. Aside from feeling tight, itchy and generally uncomfortable, the most disquieting symptom of these skin conditions is often a cosmetic one. Your skin may be flaking, scaling and peeling, or it may feel rough and have the appearance of fine lines and cracks. While you may find this unsightly, cracked skin also makes a good entryway for germs.

Bacteria can cause infection both on your skin and elsewhere in your body. For this reason, tending to skin conditions goes beyond cosmetic concerns; it's a matter of your health and safety. The products you choose have a significant impact on your skin and your overall health. While many personal care products contain toxins and chemicals you wouldn't want to use, some have carry acute risks.

Emollient Creams May Be Highly Flammable

Heavy emollient creams, sometimes prescribed for eczema and psoriasis, have been linked to a number of deaths by the London Fire Brigade.1 An investigation by the BBC uncovered 37 deaths linked to skin creams in England since 2010. However, firefighter Chris Bell, watch commander with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, believes that number may be much higher.2 “Hundreds of thousands of people use them; we're not sure how many fire deaths might have occurred but it could be into the hundreds,” he says.

The offending ingredient is paraffin, frequently added to creams as an inexpensive means of softening skin. Skin creams are usually used consistently by consumers, without a change of clothes or bedding. Paraffin residue can then soak into the fabric, making it flammable.3 Many of these deaths have been traced back to smoking, where an open flame or ash blew onto their clothing.4 Darren Munro, borough commander for London's Wandsworth Fire Station commented:5

“In four 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.”

Regular washing of your night clothes and bedding may not eliminate the problem since paraffin is invisible, can accumulate over time and often soaks into the fabric. Monroe believes the true scale of the number of fires related to skin creams has not been tallied:6

“One of the fatalities that we dealt with, unfortunately, the individual had had a previous fire, which wasn't reported. The carers or a neighbor 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.”

England’s 5 Live Investigates approached 53 fire brigades in the U.K. to determine the number of deaths associated with paraffin-based creams, but only six of the firehouses provided the information.7 Last year, Britain's Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency requested manufacturers who had products containing paraffin carry a fire risk warning on the packaging. To date, an investigation revealed only seven of the 38 products sold in Great Britain contained warnings.8

Why Use Paraffin Wax?

If paraffin wax is so flammable, why is it used in beauty products? If you've ever had a manicure or pedicure, you may have had a hot wax treatment. The liquid is commonly used to soften and smooth skin and sometimes found in face creams and body lotions. Since the product is inexpensive, manufacturers find it improves their bottom line and helps your skin “feel” moisturized.9

Paraffin wax was originally called petroleum wax.10 Discovered in 1830, paraffin wax is a petroleum byproduct from waste when crude oil is refined into gasoline. During the 1850s chemists were able to separate the natural waxy substance from the petroleum into what is now called paraffin.

Unfortunately, this refinement does not improve the safety of it.11 Quite the contrary. During the first step in the refining process the wax is bleached in order to change the color from black sludge to snow white. Bleaching the wax12 increases the risk of dioxin production, associated with a number of health conditions, including reproductive and developmental problems, damaged immune systems and cancer.13

In the past, paraffin wax treatments have been used to increase blood flow, reduce joint stiffness and help reduce pain in skin and joint areas, especially for those suffering from arthritis. Today, wax treatments on your hands and feet are used by manicurists to help you relax and soften your skin. However while your skin may feel softer, paraffin wax actually clogs your pores and doesn't hydrate or repair your skin.14

Skin Conditions Originate and Need Treatment From the Inside Out

Although cosmetic companies make their living convincing you to purchase creams and lotions to smooth your skin and look younger, the most effective way of getting younger looking skin is by taking care of it from the inside out. Certainly, external variables will contribute to dry skin. Weather is a major factor, as is your occupation. For instance, jobs where you must wash your hands multiple times a day will effectively remove much of the natural oils and cause the skin to become dry and cracked.

A significant factor is your diet. When you provide your body with vital nutrients to keep your skin supple, you'll reduce the need for external moisturizing. Chief among those nutrients are animal-based omega-3 fats that help normalize the fats in your skin and prevent dehydration in your cells. Fatty acid deficiency can manifest in a variety of ways, but externally you often notice eczema, cracked heels and dry irritated skin.

Your body functions optimally when there’s a healthy balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fats.15 Unfortunately, the standard American diet is often too high in damaged omega-6 fats, which increase the inflammatory response in your body. The addition of omega-3 fats has an anti-inflammatory effect that may help soothe irritated skin and help give you a clearer and smoother complexion. Omega-3 fat deficiency is quite common in the U.S. as foods high in omega-3 fats are not widely consumed.

The best sources of the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA are fatty fish. But, as levels of water pollution have increased, the availability of healthy animal-based omega-3 fat has become challenging. A general guideline is to eat fish that are smaller and closer to the bottom of the food chain as they often contain less contamination and pollution stored in their body. These include sardines, anchovies and herring.

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is another healthy option as these fish come from areas of the ocean that tend to be less polluted. They also have a shorter life cycle. Look for salmon that is labeled “wild-caught” or sockeye salmon.

If these fish are unavailable, and you're suffering from dry skin, an omega-3 supplement such as krill oil is recommended. Steroid creams or heavy emollient creams may be recommended for treating inflammation that underlies an eczema flare up, but omega-3 fats may be as effective without the side effects.

Personal Care Products Loaded With Toxins

Skin creams are not just flammable, but most also contain toxins. Of the nearly 13,000 chemicals in personal care products on the shelves today, only 10 percent have been tested for safety. The U.S. does not require chemicals to be proven safe before being sold. Only after a product has demonstrated harm, has been misbranded or adulterated, may the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) take action. According to the FDA’s description of their authority over cosmetics:16

“FDA's legal authority over cosmetics is different from our authority over other products we regulate, such as drugs, biologics and medical devices. Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval, with the exception of color additives. However, FDA can pursue enforcement action against products on the market that are not in compliance with the law, or against firms or individuals who violate the law.”

The average woman in the U.S. uses 12 personal care products each day, containing nearly 168 different chemicals.17 While the European Union (EU) has been more proactive in regulating chemicals used in cosmetics, the U.S. has not.

As noted by Dr. Steve Xu, dermatologist from McGaw Medical Center at Northwestern University,18 "[The EU] banned more than 1,000 chemicals. We've only banned 10. They've been very proactive about looking at chemical safety and putting the burden on manufacturers to prove their cosmetic products are safe."

In the Environmental Defense report, “Heavy Metal Hazard: The Health Risks of Hidden Heavy Metals in Face Makeup,”19 researchers shared results from testing 49 different makeup items. The testing revealed serious heavy metal contamination in virtually all of the products:

  • 96 percent contained lead
  • 90 percent contained beryllium
  • 61 percent contained thallium
  • 51 percent contained cadmium
  • 20 percent contained arsenic

Natural Treatments for Psoriasis and Eczema

In addition to increasing your intake of animal-based omega-3 fats, consider eliminating sugars and supporting your immune system. Research suggests limiting sugar and supplementing your diet with fermented foods or probiotic bacteria can cut your risk of developing eczema by one-third.20 Beneficial bacteria in your gut may also prevent the development of allergies by helping your immune system to identify the difference between pathogens and nonharmful antigens and respond appropriately.

Using moisturizers with chemical ingredients further irritates your skin and increases the likelihood you’ll experience symptoms. Pure emu oil or coconut oil are alternatives that provide your skin moisture and nutrients without chemical additives. Other suggestions to reduce flare-ups of eczema include:

  • Minimize stress in your life, which can further promote inflammation and eczema
  • Shower shortly after heavy sweating, as sweat can trigger eczema outbreaks
  • Check for unrecognized food allergies, which can sometimes manifest as eczema
  • Avoid exposure to irritating detergents, soaps and other substances, which can cause contact eczema

Coconut Oil Fills a Multitude of Skin Care Needs

Coconut oil offers a wide variety of health benefits including improved brain function, stimulating your metabolism and providing energy. The benefits are not limited to internal functions. You likely have virgin coconut oil in your kitchen that may provide you with nearly everything you need to take care of your skin. The oil is a powerful antibacterial, destroying some of the common pathogens living on your skin that may contribute to the development of acne, and in your mouth that contribute to the development of cavities.

Coconut oil can also be used in lieu of deodorant, and will soften the skin under your arms at the same time. The oil can be used to protect your skin while shaving, and after shaving to moisturize all over your body, from your face to your toes. While scientific research is ongoing, there is some case evidence to suggest that coconut oil may help reduce the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis.21

Unlike paraffin wax, coconut oil does the work of actually moisturizing your skin, and provides anti-aging benefits as well. Rubbed on your skin, it penetrates deeply and attracts protein molecules.22 This helps to maintain or build collagen under your skin that reduces the signs of wrinkles.23 The oil helps prevent premature aging as it is gentle on your skin, can be a physical barrier to environmental pollutants and reduces oxidative damage.

Since coconut oil has nothing harsh to harm your skin, many women are also using it as a makeup and eye makeup remover. Natural makeup brands incorporate coconut oil into their base as it has the effect of highlighting your skin and giving you a healthy glow.24 The oil is also a healthy deep conditioner for your hair. It penetrates your hair shaft and prevents protein loss. Comb a dollop of the oil through your hair and cover with a shower cap; sleep and wash your hair normally in the morning.

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