Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Sad Truth About Potassium Permanganate and Glycerin

Perhaps you have seen this done on one of the popular survival shows: The lead actor pulls out a "first aid kit" and says that there are two common medicines that when combined will spontaneously combust. They are Potassium Permanganate and Glycerin. He proceeds to mix the two and almost immediately there is a roaring fire!

This is one of those times that truth and Hollywood just don't match up. It's not just TV shows either, popular survival forums tout this as being an infallible fire starter. I doubt most of the people who preach its virtues have every actually tried to make a fire with it.

The fact is, Potassium Permanganate and Glycerin will make a great fire. What people do not tell you is that for the chemical reaction to happen the ambient temperature needs to be around room temperature (70 degrees) or higher. What they also do not tell you is that you still need dry tinder and everything else normally necessary to make a fire. Oh, and another thing, they are not commonly found in first aid kits!

Check this out:

Potassium Permanganate is a fairly common chemical. You can purchase it in the water treatment area of hardware and pool supply stores. It is useful for a lot of things. Potassium Permanganate is an antiseptic. In high concentrations it can be used to kill foot fungus and generally disinfect stuff. To make a disinfectant with it, mix it with water until the water is dark purple. At these concentrations it is toxic, so take care.

It can also be used to disinfect water. Notice I said disinfect, not purify. It will kill most bacteria, but pollutants and poisons may still be in the water. To disinfect water mix in just enough Potassium Permanganate to give it a light purple color. Let the mixture sit for an hour or two before you drink it. It should be noted that this is not for long term use. I've also read not to use it if you are pregnant. Potassium Permanganate also stains. A little spread over snow will appear bright purple and can be used to mark your way.

Glycerin can be found in drug, craft, and baking stores. It has many, many uses. However, it doesn't have many uses for an outdoorsman. It can be used as a suppository to help with constipation. It can also be used as a lubricant. Which I guess is why it helps with constipation!

Neither of these are stocked in any first aid kit I've ever seen. You will not find these chemicals out in the wild. While Potassium Permanganate has some valuable traits, there are better alternatives.  I see no reason to carry either with you in the woods. Their main purpose, making fire, only works when it is warm outside! Do yourself a favor, instead of packing these two chemicals with you, just throw in an extra box of matches.

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Nate Hale said...

Glycerin and potassium permanganate are too in fact in some (not all) military medical arrays. Pot-perm is used for an antiseptic and to treat a few skin ailments. Glycerin, however is MUCH more useful to an outdoorsman as it is a treatment for insect bites, sunburn, chemical burns, toxins like the variety of poison plants (ivy, sumac, etc) actual heat and friction burns. It's smell also detours mosquitoes and no-see-ums, chiggers and ants and therefore is a mild bug repellent (admittedly there are better). There are several more uses for glycerol products, so i won't try to list them all, but there's a reason it can be purchased in medical supplies and pharmacies. And one of the biggest uses is it's a cleaner. The majority of issues that a person in a survival situation is afflicted by are issues due to poor sanitation and hygiene. Glycerin and wood ash make simple but VERY effective soap. As for the fire starting aspects. Yeah the shows exaggerate the effects a bit, but so do you. I personally have used the mixture in MUCH colder than 70 degree temps and in very high altitudes (admittedly i was just experimenting with fire starting methods and not in a life and death situation)

Timothy Borkert said...

Nate - If you could post a link to a first aid kit for sale that has these two I would be grateful. I have never seen either in any commercially available kit.

There is no doubt both have useful qualities, but they are far inferior to other products on the market. There is no reason to waste room in a pack with either.

As to their fire making abilities, I just reported my findings. The only time I was able to get it to light in sub-60 degree weather was when I warmed up the environment with a hand warmer. A box of matches or a lighter will serve much, much better on a cold, wet night, and take up less room in your pack.

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