Are Petroleum Soaked Cotton Balls the Ultimate Fire Starter?

To make a really good fire starter you only need a little bit of time and two ingredients…petroleum jelly and cotton balls. Well, we tried the method three different ways to test out how well it actually worked.

We used cotton balls, which are the standard advice told to people to use, and we also used cotton pads. We also fully soaked some pads and balls and left some balls just lightly coated to see the difference in how they performed.

To make petroleum-soaked fire starters, the typical advice is to melt petroleum jelly slowly and over a small controlled flame. The whole point is that the petroleum jelly (aka Vaseline) is flammable, so you have to be careful when melting it. Well, to get over this hurdle and to avoid using fuel to make fire starters, I put out a container of petroleum jelly that only had about an inch of PJ left in the bottom on a table in my yard on a day that was projected to get to 100 degrees. I figured the heat from the sun would melt it just fine without me having to do anything else to it.

And it did. That worked fine. I put it out there at 11am and at 2pm it was liquidy but not totally melted. Since I know that the late afternoon hours are the hottest part of the day, I just waited a little longer. by about 4pm the PJ was melted enough that I knew it would work. I happened to have a bag of cotton balls in my cupboard along with a bag of cotton pads. The cotton pads are about an inch and a half in diameter and round. I had the idea that the pads would work better than the balls, and also allow me to stack them and possibly put more in my tin that I could with the balls. I tried both.

I took a pair of tweezers and dipped the balls and the pads in the PJ and then removed them onto a piece of wax paper to harden. One of the mistakes I made was letting some of the balls soak up WAY too much Vaseline, but I also thought this might have some advantages.

I used enough pads and balls to use up all the melted PJ and then when the melted stuff was soaked up I took some pads and balls and wiped them around the inside of the PJ jar to get all of it up. Since it was going to be super hot over the next few days, I put them in the freezer on the wax paper to fully harden up and to leave them there until I could go back and deal with them again.

The first one we lit (we being myself, my partner and our 10-year-old) was a fully soaked cotton ball. It did take more to get it started, but it burned for about three times as long as the dipped cotton. So, the advantage here is if you have a reliable flame source like a match or lighter, and your tinder is slightly wet perhaps, fully soak your cotton balls because you’re going to get a stronger flame that is going to last longer to get everything else going.

The typical advice is to just DIP the balls into the PJ and not SOAK them in the PJ because the idea is you want to be able to “fluff” up the cotton ball to be able to expose the cotton inside as the tinder to catch your spark. This will definitely be the best approach if you are using a handmade fire starter like a flint and steel or something where you’re going to have to work hard to get a spark and you want it to catch right away. In our test, the dipped cotton ball lit up right away but did not burn very long. In this video you can see that the less soaked ball lit up right away but the flame is not nearly as intense. This video also shows us using the flame to light one of the pads, to see how that one goes along. You can see that as soon as the wax paper it was on touches the flame it burns away and then the pad catches.The video ends right when the pad catches, but it burns for 10 minutes more beyond what you see here.

The third test was a cotton pad. These absorbed a lot of PJ so I didn’t bother trying to fluff it up. It started faster than the fully soaked ball and, here’s what I got excited about…it burned for even longer than the fully soaked ball. The pads are woven, and they are in two layers with a little air space in between, The circular nature of the pad and the size of it, and I think, just the woven structure of the cotton in general, kept it burning for a lot longer. I also liked that it was flat, as opposed to round like the ball. I felt that gave me more stability as it was resting on the surface, so I wasn’t worried that it would roll away or something like that.

When it was time to remove the soaked pads and balls from the freezer, I placed each pad in a small piece of clean, new wax paper that I wrapped around it and then placed in a round plastic container. This was so they wouldn’t stick together. I placed a layer of the balls on top and then closed the lid. I had some balls that didn’t fit, so I placed those in an Altoid tin. The was paper that the fire starters were on had some PJ on it still, so in order to not waste that I rolled it up and then cut it into sections that I also stuffed into the tin. These will work for fire starting too.

Bottom line, the PJ soaked balls are a great fire starter, I’m not sure I’d say they are the ultimate though. I really liked the pads.