Cotton is the material of choice for a lot of consumers. It is light and breathable enough for use in summer clothing, it feels good against the skin, it is of natural origin, and we can dye it lots of different colors for fashion items. But, there are concerns that cotton may be too flammable to be considered safe? Is this true?
Cotton is a flammable material. This is due to its natural plant-based origin. The good news is that it would take a lot for it to catch fire, even if it will burn easily if it does. This can all sound quite concerning for anyone that prefers to use natural fibers over man-made ones. However, this doesn’t necessarily make cotton less safe than other clothing materials.
In this guide, I want to talk more about why cotton is so flammable compared to other materials, but also show you how it compares to other options, such as wool and polyester.
This also means talking about the pros and cons of using wool/polyester blends over 100% natural cotton material.
Why Is Cotton Such A Flammable Material?
The main issue here is that cotton is a natural plant-based material. This means that it contains lots of cellulose fibers, much like within leaves and wood.
These can be highly flammable due to their structure and they can sustain the heat needed to maintain a burn. Therefore, dry cotton in its natural and processed state will showcase similar properties.
Cotton isn’t the only material with these properties. Linen is another that has a lot of cellulose fibers, which means this is another clothing material with a higher likelihood of combustion than other materials.
Paper also has a lot of cellulose as it is made from processed wood. As you know, this will burn away very quickly when in contact with fire.
Does Cotton Burn Easily?
Yes and no. Once the cotton is alight, those cellulose fibers will ensure that it burns quickly and stays alight for quite a long time.
However, it takes a lot for it to reach the right temperature. The ignition point of cotton is 210 degrees Celsius or 410 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is low compared to some of the other materials I will discuss later. But, it is still much higher than any general day-to-day setting.
Another issue is that cotton can ignite at high temperatures due to chemical reactions. There are cases of this where cotton clothing and rags have gone up in flames when in contact with super glue.
The liquid glue contains cyanoacrylate, which can react with the material and raise the temperature enough to hit that low ignition point.
Can You Dry Cotton In Front Of A Fire?
There are cases where cotton materials have caught fire because they got too hot in front of a fire or electric heater.
General temperatures while outside or on drying cycles aren’t going to come close to being hot enough to set it alight. With that said, there are also stories of broken dryers overheating and excessive heat from clogged dryer ducts.
So, this shows that it pays to keep your dryer in the best possible condition to lower the heat and protect your clothes.
If you need to dry cotton without the use of a dryer, it is better to do so in fresh air or on a washing line rather than in front of the high heat of a fire or radiator.
If you must use one of these make sure there is enough distance between them and keep an eye on the temperature.
How Fast Does Cotton Burn?
It doesn’t take long for cotton to become completely engulfed in flames. Depending on the fire and the presence of any accelerants, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours.
It will also take a lot longer for wet cotton to burn because of the fire-resistant properties of the water in the fibers.
Is Cotton Toxic When It Burns?
There isn’t a toxicity risk when burning 100% natural cotton because the material doesn’t have any nasty chemicals that will burn off.
Treated or dyed fabric may be a little more hazardous, but not by much.
The bigger risk comes from additives like flame retardants or blended fabrics, as you will see below. You should be more concerned with breathing in the smoke produced by burning cotton.
Dry cotton fabrics can produce smoke because of the nature of the material. Inhaling this can lead to breathing problems and lung damage.
Can We Make Cotton More Fire Resistant?
There are different forms of cotton around and it is possible to have a material that is 100% cotton but treated with other agents.
There are concerns here when using any sort of chemical fire retardant to lower the flammability of cotton.
You might increase the ignition point, but there may also be new risks from contact between the chemicals and your skin, or breathing in any fumes.
What About A Cotton/Polyester Blend? Is That Safer?
There are pros and cons to opting for polyester-cotton materials as a safer alternative to 100% cotton. On the one hand, polyester doesn’t burn in the same way as cotton.
It is a synthetic material with strong polymers that will not catch alight in the presence of fire. When you blend this with cotton, you have added fire resistance and less material that will combust in high heat.
Therefore, it is easy to see why a shirt that is 60% polyester and 40% cotton would be seen as far more fire safe.
However, there are other dangers to using polyester. You see, while polyester doesn’t burn and ignite like cotton, it will melt at the right temperature.
This ignition point is incredibly high compared to that of cotton, so it would take an intense fire or explosion to see this effect.
Still, there are lots of health risks associated with this molten polyester. For a start, the molten plastic can fuse with the skin. This can lead to some disfiguring burns and traumatic surgery. T
here are also risks from the toxic fumes of melting plastic.
How Does Cotton Compare With Wool?
You might think that because wool is another natural material, you aren’t going to find that it is any less flammable.
That is not the case at all. Wool is a lot different because it is an animal product rather than a plant product.
The structure of the fibers means it is much harder to sustain a burn and wool fleeces even have some self-extinguishing properties to them.
There is also a much higher ignition point, a slower burn, and no risk of toxicity. This is why wool is seen as a safe material in and around fires compared to other fabrics.
What Is Fire Cotton?
A final point I want to bring up here is that there is a product called fire cotton, but the term is a little misleading.
Fire cotton is a cotton-like material that has been treated with a fire-retardant chemical. It is then placed in a kiln to harden and make it stronger and more protective.
Because of this, you aren’t going to see this in use in clothing and soft furnishings.
Instead, this is used in the creation of fireplaces and other structures that need better fire protection.
This is a great choice because the combination of the structure and retardant lets it withstand temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees.
Not only does this mean that it can stop fires from spreading from the fireplace, but it may also help with fire protection as an effective shield.
Should You Avoid Using 100% Cotton?
Not at all, there may be fire risks involved here where high heat and flames can cause significant damage to cotton.
But, the risk factors are so unlikely that you can easily take precautions against them and not have to worry about the flammability of this material. It is also a safer option in some regards than synthetics and blends.
You just have to weigh up the pros against the cons, look after your clothing, and appreciate the fire risks involved.
To summarize, cotton is a highly flammable material and one of the most flammable there is in the world of clothing in textiles.
The natural fibers mean it ignites with ease at a low temperature and there won’t be much left after a short period. Exposure to fire and extreme heat can be a big problem.
But, you are unlikely to experience any situation where clothing will combust.
While there are ways of limiting the flammability of cotton by adding other retardants or synthetics, you have to consider the downsides of using these products.
Remember, just because cotton is flammable, that doesn’t make it dangerous.