Nylon is one of the most popular synthetic fabrics in history. From stockings to parachutes to shirts to sofas, you can find nylon in so many places in your life. It’s a highly durable fabric that is super easy to make, and it can be produced at an affordable price – that’s why manufacturers love it, but should we love it? Is Nylon a fire hazard or is it a safe material to have laying around our homes and offices?
Nylon can be flammable and it will catch fire, but will usually not ignite until it reaches temperatures around 788 to 986 degrees Fahrenheit (420 to 530 Celsius). This can vary by size, layout and use. However, the biggest safety concern is not burning but melting nylon, because of the severe burns that it can cause.
Since Nylon is so commonly used, it is important understand a little about how it behaves. Here’s what you need to know about nylon and fire.
Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
Table of Contents
What Is Nylon?
Nylon is not, contrary to popular belief, a single material.
It is, in fact, a group of polymers (plastics) called “polyamides”. That is they all contain repeated use of a group of elements known as “amides”.
It is thermoplastic, which means that at certain temperatures it will soften and be easy to work with, but when cooled, it will retain its new shape. This allows it to be easily processed into fibers, textiles, films, and other shapes by melting it in a factory.
There are other variations of nylon (which are easy to create by adding different chemicals to the plastic) and they are used in an extraordinary number of industries – from ballistics, to flooring, to clothing, to car parts and electric equipment.
It was the very first plastic to be used in a commercially viable way and was invented back in 1927 by the DuPont company.
It was used in 1938 in a toothbrush before being used in 1939 for women’s stockings or “nylons” as they were often known, and they sold nearly 64 million pairs of nylon stockings in the year after they launched.
Part of the reason for the success of nylon was that marketing claimed, correctly, it would reduce American dependence on Japanese silk.
That is, until it was decided that nylon was needed for parachutes instead to support the war effort and civilians could no longer buy nylon products until Hitler was defeated.
In 2020, nylon remains as important as ever and the global market is now estimated to be worth $30 billion!
Does It Catch Fire Easily?
Nylon does not catch fire until it reaches a temperature of 788 to 986 degrees Fahrenheit (420 to 530 Celsius), depending on the type.
We live in an age where people and governments are highly conscious of consumer safety. As such, no material that is worn on the human body tends to be easy to set fire to.
That doesn’t mean that nylon won’t burn. It is combustible and, in fact, it is easier to burn than say, cotton, one of the natural fibers that it competes with.
You can see in this video how it takes a while for the nylon jacket to light, but it burns pretty quickly after that:
But you probably won’t suddenly burst into flame if your nylon sleeve were to be exposed to a higher than average temperature for a few seconds.
Does It Melt Or Burn?
Nylon can melt and it can burn, depending on the temperature and time that it is exposed. Nylon can melt around 320 to 527 degrees Fahrenheit (160 to 275 Celsius), which is much lower than the temperature that it will ignite.
In fact, the biggest concern with nylon is not so much that it will burn but rather that it will melt. As a thermoplastic as it gets hotter, the bonds in the plastic get weaker and, initially, this means that it can be more easily shaped.
But if it gets hot enough nylon will melt and this can be catastrophic if you are in contact with the molten nylon.
The problem with molten materials is not just that they burn the person but that they stick to them. This means that, eventually, the material will need to be removed from the skin – which can cause horrific injury, potentially worse than the burn, and infection.
This doesn’t mean that burning nylon is of no concern, however, burned nylon may release various gases as it burns including toxic substances and, in particular, hydrogen cyanide. Nylon is rarely burnt at the end of its lifespan because of this. Sadly, it takes up to 40 years for nylon to decompose in landfill.
The strangest thing is that nylon is very easy to recycle, but almost no companies do so at the moment. Thus, nylon has a much more negative environmental impact than is necessary. Hopefully this changes in the future.
Why Do Nylon Clothes Catch Fire Easily?
Nylon clothes don’t catch fire that easily, but they certainly burn more easily than some other types of clothing.
It still needs to be exposed for fairly high temperatures to catch fire, just less so than some other fabrics.
The biggest issue, as I mentioned above, is the melting of nylon clothes and the danger that it presents. Especially when compared to something like cotton.
It’s a good idea not to allow nylon clothing to come into contact with naked flames, burning cigarettes, etc. though we’d note – it’s a good idea to prevent all of your clothing from coming into contact with fire, no matter what it is made from.
What About Nylon Carpet?
Nylon carpet can catch fire, but it is not extremely flammable, due to a relatively high ignition temp. But they certainly will burn in the right conditions.
However, given the relative ease of setting nylon on fire, most modern construction companies strongly recommend against using nylon carpets.
If your house were to catch on fire and it’s full of nylon carpets, they will catch fire easily and make the problem worse. It is possible to buy fire-retardant nylon carpets, however, which have been treated with other chemicals to prevent them from easily burning.
Technically, ballistic nylon can be flammable, but it is usually treated with a fire-retardant compound before being manufactured into products.
Ballistic nylon is a form of nylon which provides protection from the impact of ballistics. That is bullets, shrapnel, etc. however, it’s not very good at protecting against bullets (though it’s great for shrapnel).
That means it’s not used much in military life but has become popular with survivalists and sportspeople as it’s very durable and hard-wearing.