Is Lighter Fluid Bad for You? Yes, but Here’s What You Can Do

Most backyard grillers and chefs have been starting their charcoal grill fires for ages with lighter fluid that jumpstarts the burning process for the charcoal.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Lighter Fluid: Natural Alternatives 

Most backyard grillers and chefs have been starting their charcoal grill fires for ages with lighter fluid that jumpstarts the burning process for the charcoal. Of course, gas grills users can avoid the need for lighter fluid altogether, but most gas grills don’t burn as hot as charcoal grills do. In recent years, however, it has come to light that lighter fluid has some serious drawbacks.

That means there are several good reasons why you should avoid using it when preparing food outdoors. Keep reading below to discover some new grilling tips, and to find out why lighter fluid is not the best option for starting up your charcoal grill. You’ll also learn what your options are for using natural alternatives as a charcoal starter.  

Hand holding lighter fluid bottle

Is Charcoal Lighter Fluid Bad for You?

The short answer to this is ‘yes’, it is bad for you. The hydrocarbons included in lighter fluids and match light charcoal simply do not break down easily, and that means you are ingesting them right along with your food. While you might build up a tolerance to them over time, it’s not something you should expose your children to, because they may not be able to tolerate it as well as an adult can.

The Science Behind It

Hydrocarbons are found in many fluids used today by people, including butane gas like from cigarette lighters, naphtha from chemical sprays, petroleum, benzene, hexamine, lacolene, and propane. You wouldn’t expose yourself to these hazardous materials, so why expose yourself to the dangers of charcoal lighter fluid, when you’re lighting charcoal?

Tasting the Difference

You may or may not taste the difference in foods that have been cooked over charcoal briquettes doused with lighter fluid, but some people have noticed a pronounced odor in their grilled foods, and it’s enough to turn them off lighter fluid entirely. Even if you don’t taste any difference in your food, it should be enough for you to know that there are harmful and possibly mildly toxic chemicals included in the lighter fluid used to start the cooking process. The truth is, the flavor from lighter fluid will usually cook right into your food, and leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Other reasons why lighter fluid is a bad choice 

Lighter fluid is actually a regulated product because it has the potential to trigger photochemical smog, which in some areas can be a major problem. Many urban communities discourage the use of lighter fluid for this very reason and ask backyard grillers to adopt an alternative method of firing up their grills. The match light version of charcoal, which is impregnated with fire starter compounds, is just as bad as using lighter fluid since it often contains sodium nitrate, sawdust, borax, petroleum, and paraffin.

Jar of money

Save Your Money

By purchasing a charcoal starter or a chimney starter, you will be making a one-time purchase, as opposed to buying endless supplies of lighter fluid, which eventually will cost you far more than any charcoal starter would. In addition, when you buy instant start charcoal, it will generally cost you around $2.00 per pound, compared to the $.70 per pound that safe lump charcoal would cost. Just add up the savings you would realize from regularly purchasing clean lump charcoal, as opposed to the much more costly and far less safe, instant starter charcoal. 

Save Your Time

You will also save time when you get around to stoking up your grill if you eliminate lighter fluid as part of your process. When you use lighter fluid, you have to build a pyramid so that all the coals can be ignited evenly, and that generally means you won’t be cooking for at least a half-hour after you’ve started. When you include a charcoal starter among your grilling tools, you can easily use chemical-free lump charcoal, and the air which rushes through the cylinder causes the coals to ignite much faster. You can expect to be grilling within 15 to 20 minutes when you adopt this method of starting up your grill.

The Advantage

The advantage provided by a charcoal starter is that when you place your coals in the cylinder of a charcoal chimney, they can easily be lit by paper rather than by using any kind of lighter fluid. That provides you with hot coals that are quickly ready to impart heat, and no petroleum residue from the lighter fluid, which can get into your lungs and the rest of your body. Anyone who has a respiratory issue should definitely avoid eating food prepared on a charcoal grill where lighter fluid was used as the starting agent.

Voiding the Warranty

There are some types of charcoal grills where the manufacturer has specifically instructed purchasers to not use lighter fluid when starting the grill. This information is even included in the Owner’s Manual, so it can’t be misinterpreted or overlooked. Kamado grills are a good example since the manufacturer has explicitly included language in the manual for the product, that it should not be started up with lighter fluid. Some alternatives are provided so that owners will know what is the safest and most desirable way to fire up their grills.

Women holding leaf

Bad for the Environment too

Lighter fluid can also be hazardous to our environment, so that’s another reason you should avoid using it on your backyard cookouts. It contains volatile organic compounds that can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which is not a desirable situation. Because it leads to the formation of smog, it can have a very harmful effect on the atmosphere and can be dangerous to individuals who have any kind of respiratory issues. Everyone has seen pictures of a city landscape blanketed by nasty, dirty smog, and no one would seriously want to create that kind of environment in their own backyard.

Tips and techniques for alternative fire starting

It’s much less messy and a lot more enjoyable to use a chimney starter rather than dousing your briquettes with lighter fluid. It’s also a lot safer since you won’t have that big whoosh of flame that starts up when you drop a match on to your doused charcoal. There have been enough people burned by this process that it bears mentioning. Using the chimney starter method does not call for any lighter fluid at all, but just a simple match and paper.

Doing the Math

That’s all that’s needed to get your chimney starter charcoals lit, and in no more than 15 or 20 minutes, they’ll be ready to put in your grill and commence cooking. You’re far better off using a charcoal chimney than trying to ignite your coals with lighter fluid, because you’ll save time for one thing, and you’ll eliminate the possibility of producing noxious gases which will then find their way into whatever food you’re cooking. Most charcoal chimneys only cost between $15 and $30, and they will generally last for 10 years or more, so it’s an excellent investment, and it’s a very inexpensive alternative to igniting charcoals with lighter fluid.

If You Insist on Using Liquid

Another possibility for starting your charcoal is to use whiskey or any high-alcohol content drink. Of course, this may use up some fairly expensive beverage, so if you do use an alcoholic drink, you’ll probably want to purchase something relatively cheap, so you don’t waste really good stuff on the grill. Even rubbing alcohol will work, but with this, you’ll have to be careful to let it burn out of the coals completely, so you don’t get the strong taste of alcohol in your food.

A Little Known Trick

An interesting alternative which you may not have heard about before is to use a cardboard egg carton. Place some coals in each of the egg container receptacles for the carton, and use a match to light the opposite ends of the egg carton. Because this will burn fairly slowly, it will ignite the coals and get them burning really well, so you can then place them in the grill and begin cooking. 

Keep it Simple

A newspaper can work well with your charcoal grill if you use it correctly. You’ll need to take several sheets of newspaper, and ball them up into more compact objects. Then place your coals directly over the top of them, and use a match to light the newspaper balls. Because they’re wadded up, they will burn much more slowly than if they were still a flat sheet, and this is what will ignite the charcoal. 


There are a number of reasons why you should stop using lighter fluid to get your backyard charcoal grill going. It can contribute to the formation of smog in an area, it can cause health problems for people with respiratory issues, it can add an unpleasant odor to your food, and it contains toxins which can damage your lungs.

There are plenty of very easy and very reasonable alternatives available to you so that you can start your charcoal grill without using lighter fluid. Any of these alternatives will be better for the environment, they will be healthier for you personally, and they will allow you to enjoy your backyard cookouts while also having peace of mind about any health issues.

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