Sky lanterns: The difference between high and low quality

Published June 13th, 2011. Filed in: Articles & Information

Lewis Sellers from Night Sky Lanterns talks us through the huge differences between high quality lanterns and the low quality and potentially dangerous lanterns which are doing so much to damage the industry.

There has been a lot of bad press lately about sky lanterns and how they are extremely dangerous and bad for the environment, but this isn’t the case if you buy good quality lanterns from a reputable retailer. I am a partner in a company based in the UK called Night Sky Lanterns, we set up our company nearly three years ago with our main aim being to supply the highest quality sky lanterns in the UK.

Here is a guide to show you what you should look for when purchasing a sky lantern. Good quality ones may cost you a little more, but you’ll have a much better experience and receive no problems. I’ll start by talking through each point of the sky lantern and then talk about some differences between good and bad quality ones.


The packaging

This may not seem important when purchasing a set of sky lanterns, but you can learn a lot about the product just by the way it is packaged. Higher quality sky lanterns usually come packaged in an outer protective box to ensure that the lanterns arrive in excellent condition when they are opened, cheaper sky lanterns will either come in bundles with no outer packaging or in a thin cellophane wrapper that can tear easily. It’s always worth checking the product inside the box though, nice packaging doesn’t always mean a great product!

Once you’ve opened the box, you’ll be able to see the lantern quality much better. On a cheaper set of sky lanterns, you’ll see a thin cellophane wrapper again, the instructions generally are in black and white and the general packaging just looks like its been done to maximise profits. If you’re looking at a higher quality lantern, you’ll usually have full colour packaging with clear instructions (written in English) and the presentation of the product will be nicely packaged. Thicker cellophane is always used that doesn’t look crumpled and the sky lantern should look in perfect condition.


What to look for when opening the Lantern

When you first take the sky lantern out of the packaging, you should be able to immediately feel quality. The sky lantern should be well folded and the paper on the lantern should be thick and crisp. A lower quality lantern will have much thinner paper that looks more crumpled. Some of the cheaper lanterns have quite a bad smell too as they are packaged when slightly damp, this can make mould grow inside the sky lantern.

You should be able to see on the photo belowthe two sky lanterns side by side. The cheaper sky lantern is on the left hand side and the higher quality lantern (in this case one of our ‘White Traditional Sky Lanterns’ ) is on the right hand side.

Sky Lanterns

Let’s look at the lanterns and point out the differences:

Left hand – lower quality – lantern:

  • Although you can’t see on the photo extremely well, the paper is much thinner. Probably half as thick as the sky lantern on the right.
  • Stains can be seen on the lantern where it has been packaged. The lantern has a very distinct damp smell to it as well.
  • The fuel cell has leaked onto the paper above as there is no protective cover over the lantern.
  • No silica gel packet has been included (which would explain the damp smell and the stains).
  • The lantern looks very crumpled compared to the lantern on the right (not as evident in the photos).
  • The eco-string is extremely thin.

Right hand – higher quality – lantern:

  • The paper is very thick.
  • A silica gel packet is included so there is absolutely no smell or no moisture.
  • The fuel cell is much more substantial and protected by a cover.
  • The eco-string is much stronger and completely biodegradable.
  • No stains can be seen on the lantern and it is in perfect condition.

Low quality sky lanterns usually:

- Do not contain a silica gel packet. This helps to absorb any moisture that may be in the lantern. This is very important as it helps to dry out the glue once the sky lanterns have been made. If silica gel packets are not included, you can expect to find mould in the lantern, the lantern sticking to other parts of the lantern and also marks where moisture has got in and damaged the lantern.

- Use paper that is much thinner. This is extremely important. The thinner the paper, the more heat escapes out the sky lanterns. A lot of the bad press that has been said about lanterns comes down to safety aspects where people say that the lantern is coming back down whilst the fuel cell is still lit. This comes down to the paper. If the paper is thick, it can retain heat a lot better, as the sky lantern gets higher, the pressures in the air change and on lower quality lanterns, the lantern starts to float back down (with the flame still lit). On a higher quality lantern, the sky lantern will continue to rise until the flame has completely burnt out. Only then will it return back to the ground.

- Can contain asbestos. It’s recently come to our attention that some cheaper products on the market contain asbestos in the eco-string element. Asbestos cannot be detected by standard EN71 tests and a specific test must be taken in order to find out whether a product has asbestos in. The type of asbestos found in many types of lanterns is Chrysotile which is a form of white asbestos. You can’t always tell easily if a lantern contains asbestos, so if you’re retailing sky lanterns, you should ask for a guarantee from your supplier that the sky lanterns you are selling are asbestos free.

- Can be damaged. Cheaper lanterns can be damaged in two ways. Some lanterns will have some stains on (like the photo shown above), this is just visual damage and although it is not ideal, the lantern could still be used. Other lanterns can be ripped due to the glue sticking two parts of the paper together, this means that the lantern is rendered useless and should not be used under any circumstances.


The fuel cell and string

Sky Lanterns

The photo above from one of our own lanterns is a good example of better packaging. Each fuel cell has a protective cover around it to ensure that the paper is not damaged by anything that may rub off the fuel cell. It is possible that when the sky lanterns are in transit, they will be exposed to different temperatures. By covering the fuel cell, we have completely eliminated the issue of receiving lanterns where the paper is damaged due to liquid or substances coming off the fuel cell.

Each lantern is also packaged with a silica gel packet which removes moisture from the sky lantern. This works with both the paper and the fuel cell and means that you get a completely dry lantern with no smells when it is opened.

The string in use here is completely degradable, very strong and does not burn. This makes sure that the lantern’s fuel cell is secure and will not come off.

Looking back to cheaper sky lanterns, you will find that sometimes the fuel cell is secured by wire. Wired sky lanterns aren’t very common anymore as the industry took a move to more eco friendly alternatives. Whilst there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the wire lanterns in terms of holding the fuel cell in place, they aren’t as good for the environment and the resulting litter is considered a hazard to animals.

The main issue to look out for when purchasing an eco lantern is the quality of the string. As explained in the sections above, the string in some sky lanterns has been found to contain asbestos. This is a substance that is illegal in the UK and very bad for anyone who ingests it. Whilst the actual quantity of asbestos is extremely low in the string, it’s a substance that shouldn’t be in the lantern and you shouldn’t handle lanterns that contain it.

When looking at the string, you should make sure it is strong enough to hold the fuel cell. There are lots of different forms of string out there which support the fuel cell and they range in thickness and strength quite dramatically.  If in doubt, you should hold a lighter to the string before launching to see if it burns away. The last thing you want is for the fuel cell to fall from the sky and injure someone who is looking up!

That brings me onto my final point which is regarding the actual makeup of the fuel cell. If you look at the photos below, you’ll see some of the many types of fuel cell available for sky lanterns.

Sky Lanterns

The first photo (1) shows the fuel cell we have developed for our own products. Without going into the actual ‘makeup’ of the product, it’s basically a folded card that has been impregnated with paraffin wax and dried out. We have perfected our fuel cell now to ensure that is does not drip, it is extremely easy to light and it provides a good constant heat to the lantern to ensure it doesn’t come back down whilst still lit.

As a general rule of the thumb, you should always avoid sky lanterns with a thick wax fuel cell (as shown in photo 6). These will usually drip very badly and provide hardly any heat to the lantern. You’ll usually find solid wax fuels on sky lanterns with thin paper. These generally take minutes to fill up with air and ascend very slowly as they struggle to get into the sky.

Looking at the photos above, Photos 1 and 2 show the best fuel cells.



Always buy your lanterns from a reputable retailer, ideally a specialist lantern company such as Night Sky Lanterns or a specialist, all year fireworks shop. The Buy Fireworks page lists firework companies who support UKFR and they should be your first port of call.

Always buy lanterns which are fully biodegradable and have eco-string fuel supports. Lanterns containing metal wire have been phased out and should be avoided.

Do check the quality of your lanterns matches the guidelines in this article and don’t be afraid to ask your retailer questions before buying. In particular look for good quality paper and non-drip fuel cells.

Do expect to pay a little more for good quality lanterns. It really is worth the extra expense. Low cost lanterns might look a bargain, but do you really want to risk the safety of yourself and your audience?

I hope this article has proved useful to people looking at purchasing sky lanterns. Ideally, it would be good to show a video with a high quality lantern vs. a low quality lantern and I will look into this in the future!

Unfortunately, one of the main issues we face as a sky lantern distributor in the UK is the fact there are so many poor quality lanterns in the market. These lower quality products create the bad press that surrounds the lantern industry and are considerably cheaper than the products we stock.


Further information

This article was written by Lewis Sellers from Night Sky Lanterns.

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