Spontaneous Combustion: fire risk in massage and health practice

Spontaneous combustion… Whoever would have thought?!

Spontaneous Combustion

It’s a very real risk, albeit a rare one, in the healthcare landscape with freshly laundered linen. There are all kinds of stories of practices burning to the ground because of towels catching fire or self-combusting. This article attempts to identify the risk and provide some simple steps all practitioners should take to mitigate the risk, especially for businesses that launder their own linen.

What is the risk?

The risk occurs typically when hot laundered towels or other linen are taken directly from a tumble dryer and stored without sufficiently cooling down. The heat from the towels is insulated and gradually builds until the towels eventually catch fire.

It occurs due to oxidation of the hot materials which is an exothermic reaction, exacerbated by the presence of oil. Where hot towelling from a laundry dyer is left in a pile, the additional heat that is released by the reaction is insulated, and so the temperature within the pile increases, which may lead to a runaway condition and ultimately fire.

Factors that can increase the risk

  • Using an electric dryer rather than hanging the towels out to dry naturally
  • The presence of oils in the towel or cloth can be attributed to increasing the risk of self-heating and spontaneous combustion. This can be a direct result of inadequate laundering or removal of oils during the laundering process.
  • Not allowing the towels or cloth to sufficiently aerate and cool down after the drying cycle. This can occur when the towels are left in the dryer or if taken directly from the dryer and left in a pile
  • Overloading the drying machine can compromise the drying capability as heat would struggle to permeate the density of the load while increasing the temperature of the outer layers. This also poses a fire hazard within the machine itself.

How can practitioners mitigate the risk?

  • Not overloading the washing machine. Overloading the washing machine may lead to insufficient cleaning of the cloth and thus removal of oils. If this process is not effective, it will mean a greater volume of residual oils left in the towels. Done repeatedly, this will gradually build up over time
  • Towel turn over. The age of the towels/linen can increase the risk as there are always some residual oils left in the towels after laundering. The type of oil also plays a part but it can be expected that an older towel will hold more residual oils and is a greater risk
  • Types and amounts of oils used. Organic oils such as coconut, sweet almond and jojoba oil are harder to remove whereas a synthetic or ‘water disbursal’ oil is easier to clean. Obviously, practitioners who use a greater amount per client will also contribute to oil build up in the linen.
  • Ensuring towels are clean. An obvious step but one that is commonly overlooked especially in busy practices where someone other than the practitioner is conducting the laundering process and may be unaware of the risk of hygiene requirements.
  • Inspecting each towel for cleanliness before storage. It is recommended that practitioners inspect each towel after the laundering process before it is stored. Specifically, practitioners should be mindful of the ‘feel’ of the towel – that it is sufficiently dry and clean. If towels have an ‘oily’ or ‘greasy’ feel to them, they may be insufficiently cleaned or past their life cycle. Likewise, if they start to develop an unpleasant odour.
  • Storage from the dryer. Towels removed directly from the dryer should be aerated to cool immediately, before being folded and stored. This may be achieved by hanging them in a well-ventilated area or gently shaking each one before folding and storing.
  • Laundering process. Check that sufficient laundry detergent and/or water temperature is used. These can affect the cleaning efficiency but are largely dependant on the appliance. Air drying towels rather than using a tumble or electric dryer will obviously mitigate the risk as would using an external laundering company.

How does this relate to good practice hygiene?

The risk is almost totally mitigated if practitioners are following good hygiene practices with their linen. This will mean ensuring each towel is sufficiently cleaned after each use and again inspecting each towel before it is packed away. A new set of towels should be used for each client. Practices such as ‘flipping’ or reusing linen for the next client are not accepted practices. Practitioners should also be aware of cross-contamination and should clearly store and transport clean towels in a designated area or receptacle separate to that of the used linen.


Spontaneous combustion is a rare hazard in the complementary health industry. Businesses that do not follow good hygiene practices and who do not regularly check the cleanliness of their linen will have a higher risk of spontaneous combustion occurring in the workplace, especially if freshly laundered linen is neglected after the drying cycle.

Following accepted practices when it comes to cleaning, maintenance and storage of linen will not only help reduce the risk of cross-contamination but also mitigate the risk of fire caused by spontaneous combustion.


**Please click the link to download a flyer on Spontaneous Combustion from Guild Insurance.




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