Lamp oil is used in torches, oil lamps and lanterns. It is a petroleum-based oil that is refined to burn in an odorless, soot-free manner. The lamp oil, or fuel, is referred to as kerosene or paraffin (not paraffin wax). Paraffin (kerosene) is a hydrocarbon and is considered a low-temperature fuel. Refined from petroleum and cheap to make, paraffin oil was first distilled from asphalt in the early 1800s. Asphalt is the thick sludge left behind by crude (petroleum) oil after it has been refined. Paraffin replaced whale oil as the main source of lamp oil. Paraffin oil is also called alkane, which indicates it is a liquid and not the solid paraffin wax.

Lamp Oil Ingredients

Refining Lamp Oil

Lamp oil is separated from petroleum by the distillation process. Originally the process was conducted in a small still but today happens a much larger distilling process. The petroleum is heated in a container, and the resulting vapors are condensed into liquids. Continued refining of the resulting liquid removes impurities that can cause odor and smoke. Today's lamp oil has been through a refined distillation process so that the result is a clean burn—no smoke and no odor. Lamp oils that are not further refined provide a coal odor, smoke and soot when burned. Whale oil was notoriously smoky and harmful to health, especially when burned in confined spaces.

Types of Lamp Oil

Lamp oil is produced from petroleum, whether it is called kerosene or paraffin. There are products that claim to be made from paraffin wax, which is also petroleum-based. Some fragrances are synthetic. The addition of fragrance to a lamp oil can also add a sooty response when burned. Charcoal lighter fluid is kerosene and can be used in a kerosene wick lamp. Olive oil and canola oil can be used in lamps designed for their use, but they do not work well in wick-type lamps. Citronella should only be used outdoors. It tends to leave a strong residue on a lamp and produces smoke and soot.

Lamp Oil Hazards

Never use mineral oil, rubbing alcohol or gasoline as fuel for an oil lamp. There are health hazards from vapors and aromatics released when burned. Respiratory illness and nasty odors are just a few of the results. Gasoline in particular is volatile and using it in the home puts the occupants at risk for fire or explosion. Never use lighter fluid from a cigarette lighter. This is naptha, and it is highly flammable and dangerous to use in a wick lamp or lantern.