Kerosene vs. Lamp Oil

Kerosene vs. Lamp Oil

Oil-burning lamps can add a rustic, old-world feel to your home, create a level of serene ambiance in your backyard patio, or function as a valuable tool during a camping trip. While not as universal today as they were back in the pre-industrial era, they still find niche use. Many homeowners and campers prefer oil lamps due to their reliability, consistency, and usability without the need for electricity or batteries. 

Before trying out oil lamps, you should understand the two primary fuel sources for these valuable tools, kerosene and standard lamp oil or paraffin oil. 

What Is Kerosene?

Kerosene is a clear, low viscosity liquid distilled from petroleum. It’s a commonly used fuel source that produces a bright yellow flame. Kerosene is technically a type of paraffin oil, but there are distinct differences between the two that you should understand before purchasing them. Kerosene has several grades, with some used as jet fuel, while others are more akin to diesel fuel. There are two primary types of kerosene for at-home use and camping lamps, K-1 and red. 

What is Red Kerosene?

Red kerosene is an industrial product intended for powering equipment like engines and generators. It’s a tax-free form of kerosene not intended for road use (as fuel in trucks and other road vehicles). To help identify trucking companies trying to dodge taxes by using this form of kerosene, it’s dyed red. Any kerosene rated K-1, including red kerosene, can be used inside lamps. However, the dye in red kerosene produces a foul odor when burned and damages or gunks up your lamp’s wick. There are also claims that red-dyed kerosene is detrimental to your health when burned in lamps; we could not find any evidence to back this claim one way or the other, so we recommend avoiding it to be safe.

What is K-1 Kerosene?

K-1 kerosene is the most commonly available grade, found in most major retail stores and purchasable at filling stations. This form of kerosene is graded and intended for use in at-home products like space heaters and lamps. K-1 kerosene is also incredibly cheap, making it one of the most popular fuels for home use. The major downside of K-1 kerosene is that it contains elements like sulfur and other impurities that produce a powerful, foul vapor when burned inside a lamp. The scent is less noticeable when used outdoors, such as with a kerosene lamp or portable stove. 

History of Kerosene

Different societies have been experimenting with extracting flammable oil since ancient times. One of the oldest examples is the Persian scholar Rāzi, who created a form of kerosene by filtering petroleum through an alembic with materials like clay. Other cultures throughout history were also able to produce kerosene through various methods. The modern version of kerosene we see today was invented by Abraham Pineo Gesner in 1846. Genser was a Canadian geologist and physician who discovered that by heating coal inside a device called a retort, he could produce a clear flammable liquid. He named the liquid kerosene but did not begin production until later, in 1854, due to patent disputes. Genser’s early form of kerosene was also known as “coal oil” because it was derived from coal. 

What Is Lamp Oil?

While similar to kerosene and within the same family, lamp oil is an entirely different product. Lamp oil, also called paraffin oil, is an odorless, flammable hydrocarbon derived from petroleum. It’s a clear lamp oil but can be sold in a variety of colors. It doesn’t burn as brightly as kerosene but is designed specifically for oil lamps. Paraffin oil is more refined than kerosene and lacks many of the impurities kerosene has. As a result, paraffin oil is clean burning and produces fewer pollutants, and lacks kerosene’s unpleasant smell. Paraffin oil is available in most home improvement stores, hardware stores, and large retail stores across the U.S. – as mineral oil, it can also come in various scents. 

History of Lamp Oil

Paraffin oil was created by a Scottish scientist named James Young in 1848. Inside a coal mine, Young discovered a type of oil seeping through coal veins. With further experimentation, Young realized that, by distilling and pressurizing coal, he could produce a liquid substance that burned remarkably. He named this substance paraffin oil, and he began mass production with some of the first lamp oil factories by 1851. Young’s oil was considered the most effective and highest quality at the time. Young obtained early patents for his oil production process in Britain. At the same time, in the U.S., the production of lubricating and illuminating oil was also taking place, with numerous figures like Gesner dominating the market. Young and Gesner were fierce rivals, and due to the problems Gesner was experiencing getting his patent confirmed, Young was able to get a British patent established first and began enforcing it. Young and Gesner had a heated legal battle, as their products were similar; eventually, Young won out, and U.S. oil manufacturers like Gesners had to pay him royalties. 

Alternative Types of Lamp Oil

Kerosene and paraffin-based oils are still the two primary lamp fuels used today. However, several other notable alternatives see some use. Each of these other alternatives is considered a niche choice, and not all kinds of oil lamps available support these alternative fuels. Furthermore, your mileage may vary depending on your location’s humidity and other environmental factors. 

Canola Oil

Canola oil is a natural oil created from rapeseed and is a viable kerosene substitute in lamps. The seed is heated, crushed, and processed into a semi-viscous liquid. Canola oil is used primarily as a culinary ingredient, but it can also be used as lamp fuel. Most survivalists tout the effectiveness of canola oil, stating that it’s one of the better alternatives to kerosene and paraffin. However, canola oil has two downsides. One, it contains several organic compounds that will coagulate as the oil burns, creating a gunky residue on the wick, which can eventually lead to clogging. And two, it makes a decent amount of smoke when burned, so it isn’t advisable to use indoors unless situated next to an open window. 

Castor Oil

Castor oil is a vegetable oil created from castor beans, and while not as popular in the U.S., it’s still widely used as a lamp fuel across different parts of the world. Different grades of castor oil are used in the culinary arts, soaps, lubricants, waxes, dyes, inks, and much more. Castor oil also biodegrades and produces a bright white light when burned inside a lamp. 

Olive Oil

While most homeowners know olive oil as a tasty ingredient in cooking, most don’t know you can use it as lamp fuel. Olive oil is one of the cleanest burning types of lamp fuel out there, as it is renewable, odorless, non-toxic, and smokeless. Traditional olive oil lamps are small dishes with thick, wide wicks. Today, commercially available olive oil lamps are much the same. They resemble small bowls with vertical wicks. You can also use olive oil inside traditional oil lamps, but some modern wicks have difficulty carrying the oil up. Tighter round wicks, or flat wicks like those found in kerosene lamps, seem to work best with olive oil. 

Fish Oil

Whale oil was one of the most popular forms of lamp fuel before the advent of kerosene and paraffin oils. Since whales are endangered, and whaling, in general, is internationally frowned upon, whale oil isn’t readily available or widely used anymore. However, fish oil is functionally similar to whale oil, is still available, and is still used as lamp oil in some regions of the world. However, it isn’t the best option as it doesn’t burn as brightly, can leave an unpleasant smell, and creates smoke if used for too long. 

Differences Between Kerosene and Paraffin Oil 

Kerosene and paraffin have a great deal in common, as kerosene is technically a form of liquid paraffin. But, there are several distinct differences between the two that you should consider before choosing one for your lamp. 

Odor

One of the most significant factors to consider in lamp fuel is odor. If a fuel produces a foul-smelling byproduct, you won’t want to use it indoors. Even worse, the odor and fumes from kerosene can be very dangerous when inhaled inside a closed space, as it contains chemicals like carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. On the other hand, paraffin is created with indoor lamps in mind and is free from odor-causing impurities. 

Burn Time/Length

While they have the same flashpoint, on average, paraffin will burn for longer than kerosene. This difference in burn time comes down to its viscosity and overall purity. 

Brightness

One advantage kerosene has over lamp oil is its brightness. While lamp oil may last longer, kerosene burns several times brighter. This brightness is one of the key reasons why kerosene lamps are often used outdoors, as they can be seen over longer distances, illuminate a larger area, and since they’re outdoors, the foul fumes are less of an issue. 

Uses

Kerosene is a multipurpose fuel used in industrial equipment, from home generators to space heaters and lamps. It’s popular due to its broad applicability and low cost. Alternatively, paraffin lamp oil is only designed to function as lamp fuel. 

Final Thoughts

When choosing the right fuel for your oil lamp, you have many options, from all renewable, natural choices like canola or castor oil, to animal-derived products such as fish oil. But there is a reason why paraffin lamp oil and kerosene lamp oil are the two most common selections for homeowners. They’re both readily available, reliable, and functional products. Kerosene lanterns should only see outdoor use, such as a backyard or garden lamp. Due to their fumes and associated dangers, kerosene lamps cannot be used safely indoors, but they can provide pristine illumination outdoors, especially when paired with the proper wick lamps. Paraffin oil is easily the better choice for indoor lamps due to its clear, odorless, and cleaner burn. 

Other Lawn Resources

Garden

The Best Perennials for Continuous Fresh Produce

Perennial vegetables are some of the most efficient, hardiest vegetables you can plant. Here is our list of the best perennial vegetables out there.

Lawn

10 Backyard Patio Designs For A Stunning Outdoor Space

Transform your boring backyard into a relaxing retreat with these 10 patio design ideas. We’ll give you tips for decorating and extending your outdoor space.

Garden

Guide to the Biggest Landscaping Trends of 2022

The shift towards functional, livable outdoor spaces has been dominating online landscaping boards this year. This article looks at the latest landscaping trends.

Lawn

15 Dazzling Deck and Patio Ideas For Your Outdoor Living Space

Are you looking to enhance the functionality and fun of your outdoor living space? We’ve got 15 dazzling deck and patio ideas to boost your backyard’s appeal.

Lawn

Best Natural Ways To Control And Kill Weeds

Weeds are the bane of every home gardener and lawn care enthusiast. In this article, we go over the best natural ways to control and kill weeds.

Lawn

How To Kill a Tree Stump: The Complete Guide

Interested in getting rid of that unsightly tree stump in your yard? Read this guide to learn about the many ways you can kill a tree stump.

Lawn

10 Awesome Outdoor Lighting Ideas

Interested in taking your outdoor space to the next level? Consider these 10 awesome outdoor lighting ideas to create a beautiful outdoor ambiance.

Lawn

How To Improve Your Yard’s Drainage: The Complete Guide

Well-drained soil is crucial to a healthy lawn and garden. Read our complete guide on how to improve your yard’s drainage with compost, aeration, and more.

Garden

12 Creative DIY Garden Fountain Ideas and Designs

Fountains are one of the best ways to add serenity and calm to your backyard. We’ve made a list of our favorite DIY fountains to help you get started.

By continuing to browse or by clicking “OK” you agree to the storing of first- and third-party cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. Privacy Policy.

OK