The Dangers of Cotton for Firefighters

Despite it being an excellent material for many purposes, cotton can be treacherous for firefighters. Cotton is fuel and can catch fire with the proper ignition or accelerate death by hypothermia.

Although cotton breathes well, it can lose its insulating features with increased exposure and decreased temperature, exacerbating hypothermia, particularly when wet. As soon as cotton reaches its maximum insulation point, it turns into its opposite – a cooling blanket. This is not cool when your feet sweat wearing cotton socks in cold weather.

Unless cotton is grown organically, it likely has toxic cancer-causing pesticides. Environmentally, it also requires vast amounts of water to grow and produce products. Did you know that 1,800 gallons of water are needed to produce a pair of denim jeans? (That’s not a typo).

Good news though, cotton doesn’t melt like synthetic materials (anything that says poly). Synthetic fabric may be light but is not recommended for those working around flames. Just Watch It Burn.

Look at this coverall of an operator wearing a cotton/poly mix. Fortunately, his long underwear prevented more severe burns.

If you fight fires for fun, your best bet is to play with Flame-Resistant (FR) Station Wear, even if you also use turnout gear. It’s a systems approach. With FR-rated NFPA 2122 compliant apparel, you protect yourself in case of short-duration thermal exposure. FR fabrics, like Nomex, are “made to provide an additional layer of protection when incorporated with primary PPE and a minimal layer of protection when worn as the outermost layer.”

CrewBoss, Workrite, Ariat FR, Portwest FR, Carhartt FR, and other brands usually offer a treated blend of several different materials, including cotton. Even embroidery thread and screen print ink have FR components, used by BareBones WorkWear® and to make official Cal Fire logos on your station wear.

FR clothing is:

  • Engineered to self-extinguish upon the removal of the ignition source
  • Designed to limit (not eliminate) burn injury.

If you are a firefighter, you deserve a uniform that puts forward the same level of dedication. You deserve a system of protection with comfort and durability. You can find the gear you need to ensure your confidence at BareBones WorkWear® and on Pants, shirts, boots, and accessories serve those who serve us.

Credits to WorkRite and Nomex® and pictures by permission of K-Rex, K-State Research Exchange


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