Flammability of topical preparations and surgical dressings in cutaneous and laser surgery: A controlled simulation study

Katharine Arefiev, Melanie Warycha, Dennis Whiting, Murad Alam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Background: Surgical fires are a rare, but serious complication of dermatologic procedures involving electrosurgical and laser devices. Given the lack of data regarding basic fire safety principles, many dermatologists remain unaware of this potential risk. Objective: We evaluated the flammability of topical preparations and surgical drapes commonly encountered in the immediate operative field during cutaneous and laser surgery. Methods: Surgical dressings, drapes, and pork belly skin were examined for fire risk upon exposure to isopropyl alcohol, chlorhexidine gluconate, and aluminum chloride under dry, saturated, and damp conditions. Both electrosurgery and a carbon-dioxide laser were used as ignition sources. Results: At least some char was observed in 86 of 126 simulated conditions (68%). Flames occurred in 2 test conditions: dry underpad drapes and cotton balls exposed to the carbon-dioxide laser. In general, drapes and dressings dampened or saturated with isopropyl alcohol failed to ignite with electrofulguration or electrodessication, although sparks and moderate char developed on pork belly skin and the underpad drape. Materials dampened or saturated with chlorhexidine gluconate, which contains isopropyl alcohol, generated less smoke and char compared with materials exposed to aluminum chloride, which does not contain alcohol. Limitations: Future studies may assess the flammability of materials in the setting of oxygen supplementation. Conclusion: In common cutaneous surgical environments, electrosurgery or ablative laser may lead to char and rarely to fire. Char may be seen in up to two thirds of simulated conditions, and in a minute proportion of conditions, fire is observed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)700-705
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Dermatology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • carbon-dioxide laser
  • electrosurgery
  • fire
  • patient safety
  • skin preparation
  • surgical fires


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