In action flicks and survival shows, we’ve seen our hero mix together common and benign household ingredients to produce a much-needed flame. But is this real life, or some Hollywood trickery?

During a recent winter survival class, my co-instructor—Rick Pyle of American Medical Preparedness—pulled out a bottle of glycerin and a product called Pot Perm Plus from his fire kit. He blended the dark potassium permanganate powder and clear liquid together. After stirring a couple of ounces of Pot Perm Plus with a tablespoon of glycerin, just for a few seconds, a tongue of hell-fire shot up from the mixture.

I’m always surprised when I watch this violent exothermic reaction. Maybe it’s because I never know the exact second it will flame up, or perhaps it’s just because it doesn’t seem like it should work in the first place. In either case, folks have been using those two chemicals to start fires for decades.

The modern applications of glycerin are for skin softeners and laxatives. The modern use for potassium permanganate is to regenerate the greensand in home water softening systems. You can also use potassium permanganate for water disinfection and wound disinfection.

Have you ever used this method or something similar to produce flames? Leave us a message in the comments.