Flammability of Clothing

How does clothing catch fire?

Clothing will not burn unless it comes into contact with high heat, such as a spark, an open flame, or other ignition sources. Usually textile fires are caused by smoking cigarettes, candles, children playing with matches, flammable liquids, incorrectly used space heaters, barbecue grills, or other flame sources. Remember, clothing can ignite even without an open flame. Clothing fires can result in severe, painful, and costly burn injuries.

What government agency regulates fabric flammability?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, a division of the Department of Commerce, oversees the various fabric flammability regulations. Check their website at: http://cpsc.gov/. This site has up to date information from the Federal Register about most flammability issues. Some other federal or state agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, or the State Department of Transportation, may regulate other textile products like automotive carpet and upholstery textiles for aircraft interiors.

If fabrics pass U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission standards under the Flammable Fabrics Act, will they burn?

Yes.  All natural and synthetic fibers commonly used in apparel and home furnishings fabrics are flammable and will burn under the right conditions unless specifically treated and/or manufactured for flame resistance. Treated and specifically modified textiles are less likely to ignite and may burn more slowly if they do ignite.

Will fabrics manufactured for flame resistance or treated for flame resistance burn?

Yes, under the right circumstances. Flame resistant fabrics are slow to ignite, burn more slowly, and may self-extinguish when the source of flame or heat is removed. The flame resistance offers a margin of safety which allows a person a little extra time to remove garments, drop and roll to smother the flames, or otherwise extinguish the fire.

If fabrics are labeled, R-flame resistant S and/or R-flame retardant S does it mean the same thing?

Almost. Flame resistant means that a fiber or fabric is difficult to ignite or catch fire. It may also mean that it will burn slowly and self-extinguish if the source of the heat or flame is removed. R-Flame retardant S means that the fabric will burn slowly and may self-extinguish when the source of heat or flame is removed.

Do all fibers burn in the same way?

No.  Different generic classes of fibers have different burning characteristics.   Cotton and other cellulosic fibers (linen, rayon, lyocell, ramie) ignite easily, burn with a bright flame, smell like burning paper, and leave a white feathery ash.  Polyester and nylon fibers may be slower to ignite, shrink and pull away from the flame source initially, but eventually will burn with a flame. As they burn, the melting residue holds heat and cools slowly to form a hard bead-like plastic residue that holds heat and cools slowly.  A chemical odor is produced.  The melting residue is a very high temperature and can cause deep and severe skin burns. Acrylic fibers burn with a flaming, melting drip of molten material.  All manufactured fibers burn at a high temperature and can cause severe skin injury because they shrink as they burn and tend to stick to the skin.  Wool and silk (protein fibers) shrink from the flame, are hard to ignite, smell like burning meat or flesh, sputter as they burn and leave a crisp, foamy crushable residue. Although these fibers have R-natural-S flame retardance, because they are difficult to ignite and burn slowly, fabrics of these fibers often burn easily because of an open fabric weave or knit and dyes or finishes present.  Blended fabrics, such as cotton and polyester fibers together in one fabric, for example, combine to make a fabric that doesn’t burn like either fiber.  Blends sometimes are more dangerous than either individual fiber.

Are there fibers and fabrics that do not burn?

Yes.  Some fibers are engineered for industrial purposes to be flame resistant. Fabrics made from glass, aramid, novoloid, sulfur, and saran fibers do not burn with a flame and can withstand high heat. They may char and degrade in high heat. Because of their high cost, texture, and appearance they are used in specialty gear and industrial applications, but are not commonly found in consumer clothing and household textiles.  Flammable fibers can be given flame resistant finishes to reduce their likelihood of catching fire.

How can you tell the different fibers apart?

The different burning characteristics of cellulosic, protein, and manufactured fibers are often used as an initial step in fiber identification for beginning textile students. Microscopic examination can usually identify different cellulosic fibers. However, solubility tests must be used to classify manufactured fibers.

Do most fabrics burn at the same speed?

No.  Fabric construction greatly alters burning.  Fibers burn differently when they are in a cloth structure. The more oxygen that is available between the fibers, the more rapid the burning. Open structures that provide a lot of access to oxygen burn quickly. Napped (fuzzy) finishes and very thin light weaves, such as cotton voile, open weaves or knits, tend to foster quick ignition and swift burning. Heavy fabrics that are closely woven, such as denim twills, burn more slowly, but because of the quantity of material, burn longer.

Does garment design affect safety?

Yes.  Clothing is safer, even though flammable, if it fits close to the body or has quick-release closures/openings (e.g. snaps, velcro, etc.) so it can be removed rapidly if it catches fire.  A garment made with lots of extra fabric is more likely to catch fire.  Robes are safer if sleeves are 3/4 length because they can be ignited as a person reaches across a gas or electric range burner. Trims, bows, french cuffs, ruffles, ect. all contribute to higher risk of clothing ignition.  Clothing that fits closely or snugly to the body is less apt to stray into a flame source and, if it ignites, tends to self-extinguish.

What does the Flammable Fabrics Act do?

The Flammable Fabrics Act of 1953, and its most recent Amendment, forbids the marketing of dangerously flammable material in inter-state commerce.  It includes all wearing apparel of any fiber content or construction.  It aims to keep highly dangerous fabrics off the consumer market.  Testing by the Consumer Products Safety Commission results in the recall of garments that fail a flammability test. The general wearing apparel test most commonly used is the 45 degree angle test; most apparel fabrics pass it easily. Fabrics that fail are often highly napped rayon or very thin cotton fabrics, such as imported voile. Under the Amendment, more rigorous requirements have been applied to specific product categories, such as children's sleepwear, mattresses and mattress pads, carpets and rugs, and vinyl films.

Are there other regulations that apply to textile flammability?

Yes.  Flammability standards have been enacted for vinyl plastic film, large carpets and rugs, small carpets and rugs, children's sleepwear 9 months to 6X, mattresses, and children's sleepwear sizes 7 - 14.  The children's sleepwear standard excludes diapers and underwear.

How do these flammability regulations work?

Standard flammability tests have been created to measure ignition ease, flaming, rate of burn, or flame spread (in the case of carpets). Using these standard test methods fabrics can be compared and ranked regarding their safety.  Failure to meet the children's sleepwear test would mean that the garment could not be marketed.

What is the benefit of flammability regulations?

The incidence of burn injury and death due to ignition of sleepwear among children decreased greatly after the enactment of the Children's Sleepwear Standard in the 1970s.  Mattresses that self-extinguish when people go to sleep smoking are less likely to cause burn injury or death from smoke inhalation.  Carpets and rugs that self-extinguish without spreading the flame throughout the house or office can reduce property damage and personal injury or death.

Are the regulations often changed?

No.  It is very time consuming to establish a standard.  Therefore, it is difficult and time consuming to get them changed. Manufacturers, governmental agencies, and all interested parties' lawyers must agree on the need for standard appropriate test methods. Hearings are conducted to solicit public comment and proposed rules must be published in the Federal Register ahead of time.  Developing such regulations is a tedious process. However, occasionally flammability standards do change.

Have there been any recent changes in these standards?

Recently the Children's Sleepwear Standard was revised to exclude sizes zero to nine months because very few children of that age had suffered burn injury from sleepwear ignition.  Parents are advised to choose snug fitting sleepwear for very young children to minimize any chance of clothing ignition.

If you are in a house fire wearing flame resistant clothing, are you protected?

No.  Most people who die in house fires die from smoke inhalation.  However, flame resistant or flame retardant clothing is not sufficient to protect from burn injury in such a situation.

How can you tell if a garment is flame resistant or flame retardant?

Unless labeled as flame retardant or flame resistant all clothing should be considered flammable.

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