05 Jun, 2024

What is flame retardant fabric? Explained by textile fabric manufacturers

What is flame retardant fabric? Explained by textile fabric manufacturers

Fabric

Introduction

Flame retardant fabric is practically everywhere in our lives. From baby strollers and car seats to clothing and furniture, flame retardant is added to these items to prevent flames from spreading rapidly.
 

It plays a crucial role in safety regulations, especially in places where fires might happen often, like factories or public spaces. However, flame retardant fabric can become toxic due to the chemicals added. 
 

Because of the complexity and health concerns, we have gathered the information not only from online sources, but from our experiences as a textile manufacturer to help you understand flame retardant fabric better, and the solutions to its controversies. Let’s learn more about it.
 

Understanding flame retardant fabric

Why is flame retardant fabric so common in our lives? Besides preventing things from catching fire easily, there are other important reasons. Let's find out more.
 

What is flame retardant fabric?

Unlike flame resistant fabric which is naturally resistant to fire, flame-retardant fabrics can slow or stop the spread of fire by using a chemical finish applied directly to the fabric. However, concerns have been raised about the potential health risks associated with these chemicals, such as links to cancer, hormone disruption, and developmental issues in children. Environmental impacts are also a concern, as these chemicals can persist in the environment and accumulate over time. 
 

Common uses: home furniture, carpets, curtains, children products. 
 

Which minerals are used as flame retardants?

Several minerals are used as flame retardants due to their ability to resist and slow down combustion. Some of the common minerals include:
 

1. Aluminum Hydroxide: This mineral releases water when heated, which cools the material and helps to dilute flammable gasses.

2. Magnesium Hydroxide: Similar to aluminum hydroxide, it releases water upon heating and also forms a protective char layer.

3. Antimony Trioxide: Used in combination with halogenated flame retardants, it enhances flame resistance by forming a protective barrier.

4. Zinc Borate: Acts as a multifunctional flame retardant, providing flame retardancy, smoke suppression, and anti-dripping properties.
 

Why are flame retardants used in baby strollers?

Flame retardants are used in baby strollers because the polyurethane (PU) coating on fabrics, which prevents fraying, can be flammable. To address this, flame retardants are added to make the fabrics less flammable. However, now we know that flame retardants are toxic to people, especially to children, and it’s best to avoid them. Fortunately, textile manufacturers like Yu-City have developed a new type of fabric with a PU coating that is tested to be chemical-free and meets federal safety flammability standards, making it both stable and safe for children.

(Worry about not being able to find or design the fabric you need? We are always here to help.)
 

Safety Standards for Flame Retardant Fabric

Various national and international standards ensure the safety of flame retardant fabrics. In the U.S., the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) enforces flammability regulations, including those under the Federal Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA). International standards, such as ISO and EN, also set guidelines to maintain fabric safety and consistency across different regions.
 

National and International Guidelines

US National Standards:

1. Federal Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA): Enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), this standard regulates the flammability of textiles used in clothing and interior furnishings.

2. 16 CFR Part 1633: Specifies the flammability requirements for mattresses and mattress pads.

3. California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117): Establishes the flammability standards for upholstered furniture.

4. 302FR: National standards for materials' resistance to ignition and their ability to slow the spread of flames.

5. CA 117: It’s also known as California Technical Bulletin 117, pertains to the flammability of upholstered furniture.
 

International Standards:

1. ISO 6940/6941: International standards for textile fabrics' flammability testing.

2. EN 1021: European standard for assessing the ignitability of upholstered furniture.

3. BS 5852: British standard for the fire performance of upholstered furniture.

4. AS/NZS 1754: Australia and New Zealand standard for child restraint systems for use in vehicles.

5. EN 71-2: This is part of the European standard series EN 71, which is specific to the safety of toys. 

 

Testing Processes

Flame retardant fabrics undergo strict testing to confirm they meet safety standards. Tests involve exposing fabrics to flames to check ignition time, burn rate, and self-extinguishing properties. Independent agencies conduct these tests, and fabrics that pass receive certification, indicating they comply with all required safety regulations.
 

Standards for Testing Flame Retardant Fabrics

To qualify flame retardant fabrics for safety standards, several specific tests and criteria are used:

1. Ignition Time: Fabrics should not ignite or should take a longer time to ignite when exposed to a flame source, typically measured in seconds. Specific requirements can vary, but a common standard is that the fabric should not ignite within 3-12 seconds of exposure.
 

2. Burn Rate: The fabric's burn rate, or the speed at which the flame spreads, is measured in millimeters per minute. For many standards, the burn rate must be below a certain threshold, such as 30-50 mm/min, depending on the application and regulatory requirements.
 

3. Self-Extinguishing Properties: The fabric should extinguish itself once the flame source is removed. This means the fabric should not continue to burn or smolder for more than a specified duration, often around 2-5 seconds, after the flame is taken away.
 

Certification

1. Oeko-Tex Standard 100

Tests for harmful substances in textiles, including flame retardants. 
 

Four Levels of Oeko-Tex Standard 100:

  • Product Class I: Items for babies and toddlers up to three years old. This includes underwear, bedding, strollers, and soft toys. These products have the strictest requirements and limit values.

  • Product Class II: Textiles that come into direct contact with the skin, such as underwear, shirts, and bedding. 

  • Product Class III: Textiles that do not come into direct contact with the skin, like jackets and outerwear.

  • Product Class IV: Decoration materials, including curtains and upholstery fabrics. These have the least strict requirements.

 

2. UL Certification

UL Certification tests products for fire safety. It includes various levels and standards, each identified by a specific UL number. These numbers correspond to different aspects of product safety, especially regarding fire resistance and flammability. We list out a few below:

  • UL 94: Tests the flammability of plastic materials for parts in devices and appliances.

  • UL 723: Measures the surface burning characteristics of building materials.

  • UL 746B: Covers the polymeric materials used in electrical equipment evaluations.
 

The Controversies Surrounding Flame Retardant Fabrics

Flame retardant fabrics are useful to prevent flame but they can be controversial. Let’s learn more about it.
 

Health Concerns Associated with Flame Retardants

Flame retardants in fabrics can contain chemicals that pose health risks, especially to babies and children. Some of the harmful chemicals include:

1. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs):

Linked to thyroid disruption, developmental delays, lower IQ, and attention problems.
 

2. Chlorinated Tris (TDCPP):

Associated with cancer, genetic mutations, and developmental toxicity.
 

3. Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD):

Potential neurodevelopmental effects, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity.


4. Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA):

Endocrine disruption, immune toxicity, and developmental issues.

These chemicals can be particularly harmful due to their ability to accumulate in the body and persist in the environment, posing long-term health risks.

 

Environmental Impact

As flame retardant fabrics are washed, some of the chemicals can be released into the environment. Chemicals like Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), and Chlorinated Tris (TDCPP) are persistent, toxic to aquatic life, and can enter the food chain.

Now that we know how toxic flame retardant fabrics can be, you might wonder if there are any alternatives. The answer is yes. Flame resistant fabrics are a popular topic in the market. They offer a great alternative but can be more expensive. Our experts have created a table below to compare the differences between flame retardant and flame resistant fabrics. Let's continue exploring.

 

Flame retardant fabric vs. flame-resistant fabric

Before getting into details, here’s a table for you to understand the differences better.

 

Feature

Flame retardant fabric

Flame-resistant fabric

FR-treated fabrics

Inherent FR fabrics

Definition

Chemicals applied to fabrics to resist fire

FR chemicals that bond deeply into fabrics 

Made of fibers already made flame-resistant

Treatment

Chemical finish applied to the surface

Chemically treated to bond flame retardants deeply into the fibers

Natural fiber properties

Durability

Can lose effectiveness with washing

Remains flame-resistant after washing

Flame resistance is permanent

Applications

Home furnishings like curtains, carpets, and furniture

Industrial uses, protective clothing

High-risk environments, industrial laundering

Health Impact

May contain toxic chemicals

Generally safer for health

Generally safer for health

Environmental Impact

Chemicals can be harmful to the environment

Potential chemical runoff

Lower environmental impact

Cost

Affordable

Generally more affordable

Typically more expensive

 

Flame retardant fabric

As we mentioned earlier, flame retardant fabrics are textiles treated with chemicals to slow down or prevent fire ignition and spread. One common additive in these chemicals is phosphorus, which can be harmful to babies if present in large amounts. Here's a detailed look at flame retardant fabrics:

Characteristics 

  • Chemical Treatment: The fabric is coated with flame retardant chemicals that react to heat by releasing gasses that inhibit the combustion process.
  • Application: Commonly used in home furnishings (e.g., curtains, carpets, furniture), and certain types of clothing.
  • Durability: The effectiveness of flame retardant treatments can diminish over time, especially with washing or cleaning. Therefore, these fabrics may need periodic reapplication to maintain their fire-resistant properties.
 

Flame resistant fabric

Flame resistant fabrics are inherently designed to resist ignition and prevent the spread of fire without applying additional chemical treatments. The resistance is built into the fibers themselves during the manufacturing process. 
 

There are two types of flame resistant fabrics: FR-treated fabrics and inherent FR fabrics. Here's a detailed explanation:
 

FR-Treated Fabrics

  • Chemically treated to bond flame retardants deeply into the fibers (e.g., cotton, viscose).
  • Remain flame-resistant even after frequent washing.
  • Provide strong protection against molten metal and heat.
  • More cost-effective than inherent FR fabrics.

Inherent FR Fabrics

  • Made from fibers that are naturally flame-resistant, such as aramid (e.g., Kevlar), modacrylic, and certain treated cotton blends.

  • Retain flame-resistant properties and colorfastness through laundering.

  • Offer excellent heat and ARC protection.
  • Generally more expensive and offer limited protection against molten metal splash.
 

By understanding the differences between these two types of fabrics, manufacturers and consumers can make better choices that balance safety, health, and environmental concerns. Flame resistant fabrics offer long-term protection without the need for chemical treatments, making them a preferable option for high-risk applications. Flame retardant fabrics, while effective, require careful handling and consideration due to their potential health and environmental impacts.
 

Choosing the right fabric

"If flame resistant fabrics are healthier and more environmentally friendly, why are we still using flame retardant fabrics?" you might wonder. The main reason is cost; flame resistant fabrics are more expensive. However, some industries, like baby strollers and children's toys, are starting to look for new fabric types due to regulations. Fortunately, there are solutions available.
 

Some textile manufacturers offer fabrics with phosphorus levels below 1,000 ppm, which current SGS/ITS testing reports as N/A. Companies like Yu-City use special weaving techniques to create chemical-free fabrics that still meet federal safety flammability standards. These fabrics meet safety standards, pose no health risks, and are cost-effective.
 

If you're unsure which fabric is best for your products, you can always contact Yu-City for advice from our experts!
 

FAQs

1. How does flame retardant affect babies?

Flame retardants can be harmful to babies, potentially causing developmental issues, hormone disruption, and other health problems due to the toxic chemicals they contain.
 

2. What is the difference between fire retardant and flame retardant?

Both terms are often used interchangeably, but technically, fire retardant refers to substances that reduce the intensity and spread of a fire, while flame retardant specifically refers to materials that prevent ignition or slow the spread of flames.
 

3. Is fire retardant toxic to babies?

Yes, many fire retardant chemicals are toxic and can pose health risks to babies, including developmental and neurological issues.
 

4. Is fire retardant cancerous?

Some flame retardant chemicals have been linked to cancer, raising concerns about their safety and long-term health effects.
 

5. What are naturally flame retardant fibers?

Wool, silk, and certain treated cottons are naturally flame retardant. These fibers do not need chemical treatments to resist fire.
 

6. Can you wash out flame retardant chemicals?

Yes, many flame retardant chemicals can wash out over time, reducing their effectiveness.
 

7. What is the controversy with flame retardants?

The controversy centers around the potential health risks, including toxicity and cancer, environmental impact, and the fact that their effectiveness can diminish with washing.
 

8. What are the disadvantages of flame retardant fabric?

Disadvantages include potential health risks, environmental harm, reduced effectiveness over time, and the need for reapplication after washing.
 

9. How can you tell if fabric is fire retardant?

Fire retardant fabrics are usually labeled as such. You can also look for certifications or test the fabric by holding a small sample near a flame to see if it resists burning.
 

10. Are flame retardants necessary?

While they enhance fire safety, their necessity is debated due to health and environmental concerns. Alternatives, like naturally flame-resistant materials or PU coated fabric tested chemical-free and meet the fire safety standards, are often preferred.
 

11. What states have banned flame retardants?

Several states, including California, Maine, and Maryland, have restricted or banned certain flame retardants due to their health risks.