Is Cellophane Flammable?

In this article we will answer the following question: “Is Cellophane Flammable?”, we will also discuss if it can catch fire or melt, and the safety involved in using it.

Is Cellophane Flammable?

Cellophane shouldn’t burn easily but it could ignite. There are many types of cellophane, it could be coated with many things that could enhance or decrease the hazard of catching fire.

What is Cellophane?

The word cellophane can refer to a variety of plastic films, or to a specific thin and transparent sheet made of regenerated cellulose.

In some countries like the United Kingdom, Cellophane™ is a trademark while, in others like the U.S, is a generic term. 

In this article, we will consider it a generic term.

What is it made of?

The source of cellulose often comes from plants, including sources of wood, cotton, and hemp. 

It can also be made out of a mixture of other cellulose sources, carbon disulfide, and a source of alkali. In this case, a semi-synthetic sheet called Rayon or Viscose is formed.

Cellophane is not much permeable when it comes to air, oils, microbes, and liquid water, but it is highly permeable to water vapor. 

Cellophane properties and chemistry

Cellophane is a kind of polymer mostly made of cellulose, in a thin film.

To make cellophane more impermeable, it can be coated with nitrocellulose or wax. 

It can also be inlaid with polyethylene or other plastics to make it sealable for automated wrapping machines.

To understand what cellophane is chemically, let’s first review the chemistry of its basic compounds. We promise it won’t take much time.

Cellulose

Cellulose is what composes most of the plant’s wall cells.

For example, 90% of cotton and 50% of wood are composed of cellulose. Hence why they’re so used in paper and cellophane making.

Humans can’t digest it, unlike herbivores like cows, deers, and rabbits.

One molecule of cellulose requires about 1500 of the structures presented below side-by-side bonded, the picture is just showing two of them. This is why it’s considered a macromolecule.

Chemical structures of starch and cellulose.

Source: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Organic/sugar.html

The basic constituents that compose the sugar in our sugar bowls, starch, and plant wall cells are almost the same.

The chemical bonds highlighted above are basically the only contrast between common sugar and cellulose. Their basic units, amount of atoms, size, and mass are the same.

The different spacial configurations the structures above have is what separates herbivores from us.

In the digestion process, the macromolecules can’t be digested at once. They first need to be broken until reaching the size of the pictures above. This is done by enzymes.

So, when we digest sugar, bread, or starch in any form, what our body first do is break the chemical bonds highlighted above, until reaching the size of those rings the molecules have.

Ruminants do the same thing, but their digestion is very different and requires specific enzymes that we don’t produce. Lettuce won’t get any calories if we eat it, but cows could get fat eating it.

Even though we don’t digest cellulose, it’s still very important to eat our greens because they serve other purposes in our body

Nitrocellulose

Nitrocellulose is produced by adding nitric and sulfuric acid to cellulose. The acids are very strong and the overall process can be very dangerous.

When the reaction happens, the hydroxyl (ーOH) ligand groups in the cellulose are exchanged for (ーNO2)

Chemically speaking, every time there is “nitro” in a compound name it means that it has the chemical ligand nitro in its structure, a ligand often linked to explosive compounds. 

But nitrocellulose is in fact a nitrate ester

History

A Swiss chemist and textile engineer named Jacques E. Brandenberger is considered the inventor of cellophane.

He was trying to produce an impermeable fabric. He got inspired after seeing wine spilling on a restaurant’s tablecloth and then decided to come out with a cloth that could repel liquids instead of absorbing them.

He tried to apply viscose to the fabric, but it got too rigid and the layer could fall off easily. Jacques then abandoned his main idea and focused only on the impermeable film.

It took 10 years to refine his idea, but in 1912 he finally patented a material named “Cellophane”, which was a combination of cellulose and diaphane (which stands for transparent).

Cellophane started being used to wrap candies in the same year by a company named Whitman’s, in the U.S. 

But the applications were limited. Cellophane was impermeable but it could still retain moisture because water vapor could get impregnated within.

In 1927, another chemist hired by the company DuPont developed nitrocellulose, a material that is moisture-proof. In the following years, this new cellophane sales expanded for many industries.

People now could look and evaluate how fresh their food was before buying, especially when it comes to meat. Industries could now control oxygen and moisture levels in their products much more easily.

Cellophane materials had continuously been manufactured to this date and acquired numerous uses.

Cellophane flammability

It’s hard to give a final answer about cellophane’s flammability because there are just too many materials that could be called like that.

Cellophane can be coated with many materials. These can be fire-retardant, can be more flammable or even materials with unclear flammability.

Solid Cellophane™ shouldn’t be flammable. But under certain conditions, flammable vapors could arise from it and ignite, if there’s an ignition source close by.

But even if it doesn’t ignite, it can still get hot and melt.

If you wrap a lamp in cellophane, for example, it’s not likely that it will catch fire but is possible. 

If cellophane melts it could attach to the bulb, damaging it. Also, if it stays in direct contact for too long, the heat will be bigger and the flammability hazard increases.

When we say that flammability increases, it’s in general terms. It all depends on the setting you have in your place, in the sources of ignition and fuels.

If you’re uncertain whether the cellophane you’re using is flammable or not, all you can do is leave it out of ignition sources.

But you don’t have to stop using cellophane because there’s a chance it will ignite. It is not much more flammable than paper and cloth for example.

The only difference now is that you are aware that it can burn.

You can check some cellophane safety data sheets here, here, and here

Flammability hazards

Fire is the outcome of a combustion reaction.

It happens with a source of fuel in contact with the oxygen in the air.

You can think about the fire as something that will always happen if the conditions for it are given, rather than a fundamental part of nature.

A source of fuel is always something organic. 

There are many chemical reactions with both organic and inorganic things that can generate heat and burn us, but fire comes only from igniting organic things, usually carbohydrates (methane, butane, gasoline, plastics, etc.) 

There are just too many flammable things in our day-to-day lives, we should always be aware of ignition sources, such as:

  • The sun. 

Direct sunlight could slowly evaporate less-flammable substances and create an invisible flammable film, close to the material. 

The more weight this vapor has, the heavier it is compared to the air. This means it could stay put for a longer time, which could be enough to ignite and generate a bigger fire.

  • Intense heat.

Heat itself can make oxygen more available for combustion reactions, increasing the danger of something combustible catching fire.

  • Sparks.

Sparks should always be avoided. They can come from light sockets, electronics, other equipment, and friction, especially if it’s happening in a metal structure (e.g drills).

Sparks can break oxygen molecules chemically, allowing a much reactive source of oxygen to react with the fuel. This can happen even without heat.

  • Other sources of fire.

Conclusion

It’s hard to be certain if cellophane can ignite easily or not because there are a lot of types of the material, and many other products can be coated with it and increase its flammability. Or decrease.

Overall, cellophane shouldn’t have high flammability.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS): Is Cellophane Flammable?

What are cellophane bags used for?

They are commonly used as gift bags, wrapping up the entire product. They can also be used for artwork.

Are cellophane bags PVC free?

Yes, normally PVC is not applied in cellophane making.

What is the most harmful effect of cellophane?

Like any other film, the bigger risk is suffocation, especially for kids.

Cellophane itself is biodegradable, but its manufacturing uses many bad products for the environment.

Can you freeze cellophane bags?

It depends on the kind of film. It’s better to use plastic bags that are meant to be used in a freezer.

Is cellophane better than polypropylene?

Unlike polypropylene, cellophane is biodegradable. Although, the manufacturing process of cellophane can produce compounds that are bad for the environment.

Is cellophane considered plastic?

Cellophane comes from natural sources. It is a polymer like other plastics but it doesn’t come from Oil. Plastic doesn’t have a clear definition, but we can’t say that Cellophane is plastic-like.

Citations

Morris, Barry A. (2017). “Commonly Used Resins and Substrates in Flexible Packaging”. In William, Andrew (ed.). The Science and Technology of Flexible Packaging: Multilayer Films from Resin and Process to End Use. 4.3.5 Cellophane. Vol. Plastics Design Library. doi:10.1016/C2013-0-00506-3

http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Organic/sugar.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellophane
https://www.unmaskit.com/Safety_Legal_files/msds-cellophane.pdf
https://blackstonefluids.com/assets/Uploads/1b62fb14f1/Cellophane-SDS-2018.pdf
https://www.santos.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/cellophane-March-2021.pdf

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