Stuck on Santa

What should you do if your costume fuses with your skin?

A disgruntled divorcee wearing a Santa Claus costume killed nine people last week when he arrived at his former in-laws’ house and began shooting a semiautomatic handgun. The attacker set a fire before fleeing the scene but was burned badly in the blaze. The police found his body after he committed suicide and discovered that part of his costume had “literally melted to his body.” What should you do if your Santa suit fuses to you in a fire?

Don’t try to pull it off. It’s possible for synthetic fabrics to fuse with burned human skin during a fire, especially when the blaze is intense enough to cause second- or third-degree burns. But the word fuse can be misleading: Your skin won’t actually liquefy along with your clothing. (Flesh cooks under extreme heat; it doesn’t melt.) Instead, a fabric can melt onto you like hot candle wax—when it cools off, it will be stuck to your skin. While you can safely peel off melted wax, it can be dangerous to rip off a fused piece of red-and-white polyester; if you’re not careful, some healthy tissue will come off with the fabric and burned skin, and you’ll leave the area vulnerable to infection or nerve damage. Instead, just run the burn under cool tap water to make sure it doesn’t get any worse, and then head to the emergency room. There, doctors may be able to remove your burned epidermis and adhered clothing by sloughing it off with a clean towel.

A disposable Santa costume is one of the worst disguises you could wear if you’re plotting an act of arson. Not only does baggy, ill-fitting clothing increase your risk of catching fire, but bargain costumes—like the economy option at MySantaSuit.com—are often made with polyester. Like many synthetic fibers, polyester takes longer to catch fire than cotton or linen, but when it does ignite, it melts. When the gluey substance reforms, it can stick to your epidermis. Melting fabric can be extremely dangerous, because it can cause scalding burns above and beyond direct fire damage. For that reason, the Marine Corps has banned some polyester- and nylon-based athletic wear in Iraq, where soldiers are in constant danger of fire exposure due to roadside bombs. (Pure cotton, on the other hand, quickly turns to ash, which crumbles and blows away from the body.)

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Explainer thanks Louis Riina of the Nassau University Medical Center.