The safety lead of the 2016 U.K. Fire Performance Crew for Burning Man Conclave asked me what’s the difference between White Gas and Paraffin. While discussing it we realized many of the crew had never spun outside of home, and their upcoming fire show may be some’s first time ever spinning with a different fuel!
This is for Roy, Ray, the rest of the awesome International UK Fire Conclave, and everyone else – spinners, hobbyists, performers, or bystanders curious about fuel differences – enjoy!
Ya’ll probably know White Gas (also known as Naptha/Coleman-Camp-Fuel) is the fuel required for use in the BM Conclave show and most commonly used for fire spinning in the U.S.
Paraffin (also known as Lamp Oil, Mineral Oil or Kerosene, depending on your country) is the fire-spinning fuel most commonly used in the U.K. and Europe.
They actually differ greatly in many properties, and have different reasons for being the preferred. Most importantly you should know the varying dangers of each.
This article specifically addresses the differences between two major types of fuel used for fire spinning, and is not an instructional briefing for beginners. Know your stuff and only play with fire with designated safety personal keeping watch. For a cheap and thorough fire safety certification course checkout FlowArtsInstitute.com and be aware of NAFAA recommendations and local fire codes.
Written from my 7 years of personal experience with fire and fuels – I have provided references where possible, but your personal experience may vary.
Differences (at a glance)
Top 10 things to know about the difference between Paraffin and White Gas:
- “White Gas” is ~98% Naptha. It’s a particularly pure fuel, low in additives, its makeup remains consistent, and is only readily available in North America (as Coleman Camp Fuel).
- Paraffin is NOT the same in all continents or countries. In the U.S. we differentiate between Kerosene, Paraffin lamp oil (most purified), and other oily fuels. They can have varying properties, Europe and the rest of the world does little to distinguish them, and mostly they do not burn clean.
- White Gas can go BOOM! White Gas evaporates rapidly at room temperature (even below the freezing point of water!), and those fumes on the surface are enough to sustain a flame. If White Gas is left in an open container with poor ventilation, or spills and has really big surface-area, a lot of fumes can be present – an open flame or spark near built-up fumes can explode. Always keep your White Gas cans closed, and be very wary of spills.
- Faster starts, more flame. White Gas burns brighter, lights faster & easier, it’s more wind resistant, it makes less smoke, and you can do tricks with little puddles of it – that’s why it’s preferred where available.
- Paraffin is less explosive, more controllable, easier to transport (less regulations required), and lasts a bit longer – that, and availability, is why it’s used in the rest of the world.
- Spills and transfers of White Gas will evaporate on their own, albeit be more of a danger of accidentally lighting on fire.
- Paraffin spills are not as big a danger of lighting on fire (unless you leave a big hot flaming object on it), but will not go away on their own. A week later, your clothes will still be oily – or a puddle of it will still be slippery – and need washing up.
- White Gas can lead to shorter burn times because it evaporates. If you dip and spin-off your props too early before beginning your act, they may have too little fuel on them and burn shorter than you’d expect! With White Gas, consider:
- dipping close to start time,
- dipping, then waiting to spin-off until right before lighting, or
- dipping and spinning off immediately but covering the wicks in plastic bags until starting to prevent too much evaporation (easy-zip freezer-thick Ziploc or Hefty bags work best).
- White Gas is slightly more toxic to your bare skin than clean Paraffin (though it’s difficult to compare to Kerosene or most oily fuel which have lots of impurities) – they can leave your fingers real dry if you let them soak in it. Wash up after contact (standard for any fuel).
- Sometimes performers blend White Gas and Paraffin Lamp Oil to increase burn time. This “50/50” mix maintains the qualities of both fuels, including explosiveness. Always, and especially in this case, label your fuel containers properly.
Respect fire and these fuels, remain conscious and wary (don’t spin or safety inebriated), and inform your friends before they do something stupid, and you shouldn’t have too much to worry about.
The Flow Arts Institute made a beautiful video of some of this information, go to FSP Video 3 – Fuel Science on the playlist on this page of their site.
I didn’t want you to get overwhelmed off the bat, so that was the easy stuff. If you are playing with fire you need to know all the details. There’s more important differences…
UNDERSTANDING FUELS IS NOT PERIPHERAL KNOWLEDGE, IT IS ESSENTIAL KNOWLEDGE
So, if you’re curious the how & why and what to do about it – or you’re a firespinner – read on. I’m not just talking about professionals – we need everybody playing with fire on the same page, even just one misunderstanding puts everyone in real danger.
Fuel Difference Details
A note from the International Fuel Names webpage (an amazing resource) –
“With the exception of Coleman fuel, all commonly available fuels from petrol stations and supermarkets are blended mixtures that vary in composition depending on the brand, the country and even the time of year (winter/summer).”
White Gas is very different from Paraffin (if that wasn’t clear above). There’s 4 rough classifications of fuels: Gasolines, Oils, Solvents, and Alcohols. The first 3 are petroleum based, the 4th alcohols (note: all fuels have solvent capabilities, in this list Solvents are petroleum products marketed specifically for dissolving or cleaning stuff up – not intended for burning). Although both from petroleum, White Gas and Paraffin are in separate categories.
- Gasolines: Aviation (avgas, Jet B), Petrol (Unleaded Car Gasoline), Lighter Fluid, White Gas (Coleman), Diesel (petroleum-based)
- Oils: Paraffin (Lamp Oil), Mineral Oil, Kerosene, Aviation (Jet A, Jet A-1), Diesel (Biodiesel)
- Solvents: White Spirit (Paint Thinner, Mineral Spirit), Turpentine, n‑Butanol, Acetone (Nail Polish Remover, Propanone), Ethyl Acetate
- Alcohols: Ethanol (anything over 60% – 120 proof – is decently flammable, Baccardi 151, Everclear), Isopropyl (Rubbing Alcohol), Methanol, Denatured Alcohol (Methylated Spirits).
More on other fuels and why or why not to use them in a later post. Sign up for the newsletter to stay tuned to the blog. Specifying White Gas vs Paraffin:
White Gas is pure Naptha.
- Naptha is the ancient name for any liquid petroleum fuel. Though the word is still standardly vague across the world, it chemically refers to “Hydrocarbon liquids”
- In the states Naptha or White Gas is mostly short chain hydrocarbons, c5-c7.
- The Coleman Camp Fuel label (MSDS) states White Gas is one specific hydrocarbon: Petroleum Distillate, Light Hydrotreated Distillate, 100.0%
- Other sources say White Gas is 98% Naptha, still containing less additives than other petroleum products (others designed for combustion engines or cleaning contain lots of different chemicals to aid those uses)
- Either way, such extremely refined, distilled, and unadulterated Naptha products with low flash points are not available in all countries – at least not easy to find.
- Don’t huff it (inhale fumes with intent of getting high), it’s illegal and can mess you up.
- A brief history of White Gas from the horse’s mouth: Frank Schmidt, Senior Project Engineer, Appliances-Fuels-Patio Grills, The Coleman Co. –
“Coleman Fuel was developed in the early 50’s as a replacement for “white gas” which in the US was readily available at hardware stores and gas stations. This was the original motor fuel, no tetraeythlead, or additives, also known as casing head gas, water white color. Was also used as a cleaning agent for mostly white materials, also a fuel for outboard motors and early powered lawnmowers. This source started to disappear in the 50’s due to technology. The Coleman fuel of today has not changed in years, it is a blended naphtha with no lead compounds, and a paraffinic type. The benzene content is controlled to .5% by wt. or less and we add a rust inhibitor along with a green dye for identification. I will attach the specification for the fuel for your information. One point, you might find interesting is Coleman Fuel is the preferred fuel for fire eaters, have several inquiries a year as to the benzene content and is it safe.” (The mentioned attached specification is the MSDS; I’ve provided links below)
Paraffin is NOT the same in all continents or countries.
- In the U.S. we differentiate between Kerosene and Paraffin lamp oil (Paraffin is more purified). In Europe, and most of the rest of the world, these and other oily fuels are lumped together and, again, clean ones are rare.
- Paraffin is a large group of hydrocarbons varying from c5-c16!
- May also contain other hydrocarbons. From a Kerosene label (MSDS): ALIPHATIC PETROLEUM SOLVENT/PARAFFINS, NAPHTHENES, OLEFINS, AROMATIC and 1,2,4-TRIMETHYLBENZENE. You can see at least 5 varying compounds, that last additive is a Benzene – a known carcinogen.
- The spectrum includes Paraffin, Lamp Oil, Mineral Oil, and Kerosene, among others. Depending on manufacturer and makeup, these oil-type fuels can have different vapor pressures & flash points, and vary in amounts of impurities, carcinogens, and smoke & soot they produce.
- Different countries vary greatly on how these oily fuels are classified, distinguished, and regulated. Bottom line is if you’re outside a 1st world country, you ask for one of these and you’ll likely get a dirty, smoky, smelly, improperly-refined version of Kerosene.
- In the States, Kerosene is our low quality version, but it’s better than in any 3rd world country.
- In Europe the oily fuels are not as clearly distinguished, on average they may be cleaner than dirty Kerosene, but definitely nowhere near as clean as Ultra-Pure Paraffin Lamp Oil.
- For the purpose of this article, Paraffin refers to the European rough-quality-level grouped-together oily fuels (Paraffin/Lamp Oil/Mineral Oil/Kerosene).
- If Paraffin has a bad scent, it’s definitely a crappy version. But if it has no scent, it’s likely a crappy version filled with additives to cancel out the smell, or possibly a rare clean one J.
The rate of evaporation of a substance on its surface at a given temperature & pressure.
- It’s the fumes above a liquid that are consumed in the chemical reaction ‘fire.’ Vapors are flammable, not liquids.
- Paraffin: Low vapor pressure, practically none evaporates at room temperature. Must be heated up or dispersed to produce enough fumes to burn.
- White Gas: High vapor pressure (lots of gas in the air, evaporating quickly off the surface of the liquid or out of a can)
- Plays a part in White Gas being potentially explosive. White Gas still has a lower vapor pressure and is less explosive than Unleaded Car Gasoline (Petrol), Airplane Fuel, Lighter Fluid, or industrial solvents (paint thinners).
How quickly they light – specifically at what temperature they will sustain a flame from the vapors on the surface.
- White Gas: Flash Point lower than 0F (-18C)
- Paraffin: Flash Point anywhere from 100 to 250 F (37 to 121C)
- Plays a part in White Gas being potentially explosive. Although White Gas has a lower Flash Point, it is less explosive than other ‘Gasoline’ fuels because of its vapor density.
A measure of how much the vapors stay near each other and form a ‘cloud’ near the surface of the liquid
- White Gas: Low vapor density. Vapors spread out and away quickly (though they do form quickly).
- Paraffin: High vapor density. Vapors stick nearby in a tight cloud (though require high heat or surface area to form).
- Both fuel’s vapors are denser than air (vapors sink such that they stay on the surface of a puddle – opposite of Helium gas), but all practical flammables are, otherwise vapors disperse too quickly.
A measure of how thick the liquid is. Plays a part in how long they’ll fuel a fire.
- White Gas is less viscous – slightly more like water or hot syrup, pours fast, separates easily, and has lower surface tension at room temp.
- Paraffin is more viscous – slightly more like oil, molasses or cold syrup, doesn’t pour quite as fast, and has higher surface tension at room temp. However, Paraffin’s viscosity changes dramatically with heat or high surface area (on substrate like wick, wood chips, straw, feathers, cotton balls, etc.), so be careful.
Solvent (fuel’s nature to dissolve things)
All fuels, including Paraffin and White Gas, present storage issues.
- They’re all solvents, and will dissolve all but a few specific types of material.
- Keep them tightly stored in the original bottles, or double-pack them in a can within a can – if you can can – 😉
How Hot the Liquid Itself Gets
- While both fuels burn at roughly the same temperature, even though the flames appear to burn cooler from Paraffin the liquid gets hotter, is more prone to dripping, and the drops or touching the wick will more quickly burn you.
- Flaming White Gas liquid is cooler, drips less, and you can hold a puddle of it flaming in your hand without getting instantly burnt – but parts that transfer to your body, clothing, or ground are dangerously flammable!
One’s More Explosive but Burns You Less? (Specific Heat Capacity)
This oddity has to do with their viscosity, vapor pressure, and flash point. In short:
- Paraffin doesn’t evaporate as easily and has a much higher specific heat capacity. The liquid is able to remain a liquid when heated up, hold more heat, and burn you like boiling-hot water.
- White Gas evaporates more easily and has lower specific heat capacity. The liquid evaporates easily into vapors, especially when heated, and there’s less remaining heat to be transferred to your skin. More of the hot molecules go into the air and leave more cool molecules behind as liquid – even when on fire.
- That’s why White Gas can be used for Fire Fleshing – and Paraffin CANNOT.
Oil Based vs Gasoline Based
- Well, the “Gas” has more potential to explode! (White Gas has greater vapor pressure & a lower flash point)
- Paraffin, as with any fuel, still has some potential to explode – especially when heated and kept in a poorly ventilated environment, or allowed high surface area. Even so, I believe the big Paraffin worries are: slipperiness, its nature as a solvent, and potential for tools to drip flaming-hot drops of oil.
Getting it on Clothes
- When Paraffin gets on you, the transferred liquid may be scalding hot, and may remain on you longer – but it is less flammable (though it stains & makes things more slippery)
- White Gas transfers go away on their own in a little time (evaporation) but are more dangerous as they are potentially already on fire, or will ignite easily when a flame passes by them.
Skin & Eye Irritation
- White Gas is slightly more toxic to your bare skin than clean Paraffin (the only one I know of is Lamplighter’s Ultra-Pure Paraffin Lamp Oil)
- It’s difficult to compare to Kerosene or any other oily fuel because of high levels of impurities and inconsistency. I believe most Kerosene (or anything under the quality level of Ultra-Pure) to be more irritating & carcinogenic than Coleman Camp Fuel White Gas, but I could be wrong – Kerosene is definitely more sooty, smokey and eye irritating!
- In my experience White Gas or any variety of the oily fuels just leaves your fingers real dry if you let them soak in it.
- You may get a rash, but you may also get a rash from peanut butter. This is more of a personal immune system issue, and is unlikely, but consult a doctor if you feel weird or start to swell up.
- For any fuel you’re using, if you get skin contact you’re supposed to wash it well with soap and water.
- If fuel gets in your eyes, general protocol is 15 minutes continuous rinsing with water.
- If you ingest it (swallow it), do not induce vomiting. Call poison control.
- In fact, don’t even let any version of White Gas, Paraffin, or Kerosene near your mouth or mucus membranes (eyes, ears, nose, exposed wounds). The only potentially-OK liquid fuel for fire breathing (holding in your mouth to blow out) is, you guessed it, Lamplighter’s Ultra-Pure from America – but there’s amazing things being done with much safer Cornstarch (and don’t fire breathe without proper training!).
Hair: So you’re fire spinning and hit yourself in the head.
- Flaming White Gas touching your hair may just burn the tips and is less likely to cause a sustained flame, unless there’s copious amounts of fuel on the tool.
- Flaming Paraffin may transfer some of the oil to your hair – using your hair as wick – and potentially ignite more hair for longer!
- (these are the conditions for plain, clean hair. If you’re using hairspray, gel, or hair extensions you are in grave danger around fire.)
Smoke & Soot
- Soot: incompletely burnt particles of fuel.
- Smoke: airborne particles of Soot.
- Basically, if the chemical reaction (fire) doesn’t manage to turn all the fuel molecules into CO2 and H2O, (because of impurities, added chemicals, or lack of Heat or Oxygen) the remaining partially-burnt particles lay or fly around as soot – and soot is potentially still flammable.
- Compared to White Gas, all Paraffin types create more smoke and soot. They just have to be so hot to effectively burn, that less of it completely burns. They also contain more additives (and it’s worse the less regulated the fuel is! *cough*cough*).
Close Your White Gas Dip Cans!
- Although you may be used to leaving open containers of paraffin or lamp oil around, open containers of white gas can light immediately from a stray drip of flaming fuel or wick that comes apart, and a spilled can of White Gas as a puddle on the ground is a humongous fire risk (compared to paraffin, which is foremost a slip-risk).
- Additionally, White Gas evaporates quickly and you will simply lose your white gas to the air if you leave it exposed. Want your expensive fuel evaporating before you can use it?
- Believe it or not, neither Paraffin nor White Gas will light from a cigarette butt at normal air temperature and pressure (I’ve personally, stupidly, extinguished cigs out in each), but do not try this – a spark or flame WILL ignite White Gas. (my experimentation was done in a controlled environment, safety equipment and trained people around, fuel can had lots of ventilation, and the cigarette butts used were made sure to have none of the wrapping paper on fire)
- Smoking cigarettes near White Gas cans open for dipping, large dip trays, or fuel spread on large surface area like a spin-off zone is a huge fire risk as there can be large number of vapors present (the flaming paper or fresh embers from a puffed cigarette can ignite it all).
- Although White Gas evaporates more easily, it is more combustible and more difficult to extinguish by spinning fast. A little bit of cold air rushing by isn’t going to put it out. Better for fast spinning props, high throws, juggling, or things at the end of long ropes.
- Paraffin can more easily go out by spinning fast. It requires maintaining high heat for enough evaporation to sustain a flame, so enough cold air rushing by will cut off the fire.
Using a safety towel (a.k.a. duvetyne, commando cloth, stage cloth, molton fabric) to put out either fuel is perfectly safe if most of the fuel has been used up on the prop. However:
- If you’re using Paraffin and have to put out a freshly dipped fire prop the oil may be very hot, seep through towel and/or gloves and be uncomfortable to extinguish. Take care to avoid burns from excess oil on a fresh prop you have to manually extinguish.
- If you’re using White Gas and have to put out a freshly dipped fire prop (or a series of moderately “wet” props) the White Gas may soak in to the towel and light it on fire. A flaming towel is not useful ;).
- There is also mild risk the towel catching on fire if wetted with enough Paraffin (high surface area > acting as a wick).
- If your act requires repeatedly putting out freshly dipped lit props, bring extra towels!
(I mention this because I have first-hand experienced flaming duvetynes a few times, and so have others. During filming of a conclave video application for Burning Man 2012 we had to put out many back-to-back incompletely used fire tools. During one of the takes, even though we had at least 5 safeties, on opposite side of the rear of the stage TWO OF THE SAFETIES’ TOWELS CAUGHT ON FIRE AT THE SAME TIME when we had a line of spinners to extinguish.)
Check out the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)
The MSDS for a given substance (fuel) is the final word on: how it interacts with its environment (fire); how to store it; how it interacts with human skin, eyes, or ingestion; and necessary emergency information. MSDS are unique to each brand and version of a substance, and you should read them for exactly the fuel or combinations you are using. Here are a few common ones:
- MSDS for White Gas, Coleman Camp Fuel (U.S.)
- MSDS for Paraffin Ultra-Pure Lamp Oil(U.S.)
- MSDS for Kerosene (U.S.)
- MSDS for Paraffin/Kerosene/Lamp Oil (U.K.)
- MSDS for Kerosene Fuel (Europe)
Make sure you get the most up-to-date & recent MSDS for the batch of fuel you have! Companies change the formulas of their fuel products over time. There are many MSDS search databases, here’s one, and Google search works too.
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