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What are Glow Sticks?

By Lorna W.
Updated May 16, 2024
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Glow sticks are plastic cylinders that contain two liquids that temporarily create light when they are mixed together. The cylinders typically are about 4 to 5 inches (10 to 13 cm) long and less than 1 inch (2.54 cm) in diameter. Glow sticks are available in many colors and are often used for decoration or entertainment, such as at parties, concerts and other nighttime events. They also have some practical uses for camping, military or police operations, underwater activities or certain emergency situations. Thin glow sticks that are made of a more flexible plastic can take the form of necklaces, bracelets or other shapes.

Chemiluminescence

No matter what form they take, glow sticks depend on a chemical process known as chemiluminescence to produce their light. In chemiluminescence, a chemical reaction causes a release of energy. Electrons in the chemicals become excited and rise to a higher energy level. When the electrons drop back to their normal levels, they produce energy in the form of light.

Colors

The chemicals used to create this reaction in glow sticks usually are hydrogen peroxide and a mixture of phenyl oxalate ester and the fluorescent dye, or fluorophore, that gives the glow stick its color. Common colors of glow sticks include yellow, green, pink, blue and orange. They also are available in red, white, yellow-green and other shades and colors.

How it Works

A glow stick's hydrogen peroxide is contained in a small glass or breakable plastic vial that floats within the mixture inside the stick. This is why the glow stick's user must bend it to make it start glowing. When the stick bends, the vial breaks, the hydrogen peroxide is released, the chemical reaction begins, and the distinctive glow appears. The chemicals that are used might be somewhat toxic, so if the glow stick itself breaks, it should be thrown away, and the chemicals that might have leaked out should be washed off the user's skin and any other surfaces with which they came into contact.

Duration

In addition to the color, the duration of the glow — usually several hours — also depends on the exact composition and quality of the chemicals inside. Some people say that a glow stick can be preserved by sticking it in a freezer. Indeed, cooling a glow stick will slow down the chemical reaction that is taking place inside it. The glow won't be as bright, but it will continue for a longer period of time.

Conversely, heating a glow stick, such as by placing it in a microwave, will speed up the chemical reaction. This will produce a brighter light. The glow won't last nearly as long, however, because the reaction will use up all of the available hydrogen peroxide more quickly. Microwaving glow sticks might not be recommended by some manufacturers, and caution should always be used when it is being done.

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Discussion Comments
By hflippin1 — On Jun 13, 2012

What type of chemical bonds are broken down when this reaction occurs?

By anon273874 — On Jun 08, 2012

Can you splatter some glow stick on a white T-shirt and keep it out for a certain amount of time so that it stays on the T-shirt?

By anon146279 — On Jan 25, 2011

This is a great website to do get info. This helped me greatly for my science fair.

By anon142854 — On Jan 14, 2011

OK. I met a guy named crazy steve, and one camping trip this man opened a glowstick with an axe and drank it. he turned out fine so we chopped open like a bunch of them and got it all over ourselves. I'm pretty sure crazy steve drank more glowsticks, but my memory is "foggy".

By anon131270 — On Dec 01, 2010

what type of plastic are glow sticks made of?

By anon124458 — On Nov 05, 2010

Is there any color of glow stick that lasts longer than others? And if so, is there really enough of a difference to matter. It would be nice to only need one during a long Halloween.

By anon122279 — On Oct 27, 2010

I am trying to make glow sticks for my science fair project. i don know where to purchase phenyl oxalate ester. I also thought it would be a great idea for it because all the kids in my class would be amazed. So do you have any idea where to get phenyl oxalate ester?

By anon85322 — On May 19, 2010

anon54480 doesn't know what he/she is talking about. in small amounts, glow sticks aren't harmful to anything. and as for stains, they may stain with a faintly colored liquid but once it stops glowing, it will be hardly noticeable. At summer camp, my youth group broke and splattered glow sticks all over the interior of our cabin at 2:00 a.m. and nothing stained

By anon79406 — On Apr 22, 2010

Should one be worried if they get some on their skin? I used one and apparently it began leaking and I noticed a bit of green glowing "ink" so to speak on my fingertip. Is such a minor amount anything to worry about or no? Just curious.

Also, I am curious if say, these would be deemed safe for children as what if they chew on them and the stuff gets in their mouth or something. Just an afterthought really (I don't have kids but know these can be popular with them).

By anon71378 — On Mar 18, 2010

But what if -- what if we put the glow stick in the normal temperature? (6-6)

By anon71377 — On Mar 18, 2010

It was useful in my science fair!

By anon69607 — On Mar 09, 2010

I, like many other people, was doing a science fair project, and I always use this site, and it helps tremendously! thanks.

By anon69319 — On Mar 07, 2010

i spilled glow stick on my floor. how do you get that off?

By anon67890 — On Feb 27, 2010

For my science fair project I decided to do: Does the temperature affect the duration and intensity of the luminescence in glowsticks? This website was perfect! Thanks so much!

By anon63070 — On Jan 30, 2010

I have a science fair project and I need to know if you can take all of those chemicals and mix them together in a big pot to make the liquid inside the pot glow? can I do that with out getting hurt?

By anon60198 — On Jan 12, 2010

i have a science fair project and this really helped. thanks

By anon55320 — On Dec 06, 2009

Can this chemical cause harm to our environment? if it can, then how do we dispose of it in a proper way?

By anon54480 — On Nov 30, 2009

7: Glow stick liquid can cause cancer is toxic, corrosive and has a category 3 mutagen.

6: The liquid won't harm it that much but you don't want it to come into contact with your skin.

5: You cannot clean up the glow stick liquid once it has dried completely.

By anon49062 — On Oct 17, 2009

by keeping this in the fridge how do we know that the chemicals will not leak, as the plastic is subjected to thermal shock? is the plastic completely sealed like a vacuum tube?

By anon28361 — On Mar 15, 2009

What happens when the inside of the glow stick pops, and you get some in your mouth?

By anon24697 — On Jan 16, 2009

Does the liquid harm your skin if it comes in contact?

By ejmiller — On Nov 04, 2008

How do you clean up the stuff inside when the glowstick breaks?? Its stained a hardwood floor and we need to clean it. HELPPPP!!

By anon14617 — On Jun 20, 2008

Is there a common household item or perhaps a drugstore available item that contains phenyl oxalate? or maybe somewhere one could obtain it?

By anon5687 — On Dec 03, 2007

how do you make glow sticks (specific details)?

By anon1053 — On May 13, 2007

Is this a single replacement reaction? Double Replacement?

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