How They Do That: Make Products That Glow in the Dark


Glow-in-the-dark stuff. Have you ever wondered how it works? Most people have seen stickers, glow sticks, medical bracelets, toys, paints, walkways, fashion jewelry, and even pigs that light up the night. Yup. Pigs. But there’s a simple science behind all of them that’s fascinating. Here’s how it works.


The Magic Of Photoluminescence glow


OK, so it’s not really magic, but it sure looks like it. Photoluminescence is the emission of light from a molecule that’s absorbed energy – electromagnetic energy to be precise. So, what does that mean? It’s those stickers and bracelets you wear that light up at night. These Glow in the Dark Spiral Set thingies also work on a similar principle.


They’re really cool and the best part about this technology is that it’s safe and long-lasting.




Bioluminescence is light that’s emitted by living things. So, think about lightning bugs and jellyfish that light up underwater. That’s an example of bioluminescence. In nature, you see this all the time (if you happen to be in the right places). Sadly, no one has been able to figure out how to capture the little buggers and put them into jewelry.




This type of reaction happens as a result of the emission of heat. A chemical reaction produces light. Sounds scary, right? It’s not. No, really. It’s perfectly safe and you’ve probably used something with chemiluminescence before. Example: glow sticks. Oh yeah.


Glow sticks contain two or more chemicals that, when mixed, react with one another and produce light and sometimes a small amount of heat. Sometimes, there’s no heat at all. These products, while cool and all, don’t exactly have longevity going for them. You’ve probably experienced this.


When you first “break” a glow stick, it’s super-bright. But then, over time, that brightness dies down. By the second or third day, your glow stick is dead. Sometimes, the stick dies by the following morning.




This one is scary. Radioluminescence is created by bombardment of ionizing radiation. That’s the  kind of radiation that generates heat and light and what we typically think of when we think of radiation. And, it won’t give you super mutant powers in the process – just cancer. Thankfully, you’re unlikely to encounter this type of illumination in consumer products since it’s, you know, carcinogenic and stuff.


The history of glow in the dark products is fascinating, and dates back to 1000 B.C. Back then, they didn’t have modern scientific equipment. People just happened to notice things like fireflies and glow-worms. By 1602, Bolognian Stones were discovered – stones that glowed in the dark.


Today, all sorts of things have been made to glow, and we’ve commercialized the process making an infinite number of toys from various technologies. Scientists in Taiwan have even reportedly bred three pigs that can glow in the dark. How cool is that?


And, while glow in the dark bacon sounds neat, these pigs aren’t ready for the food industry.


Mathilda Warren has worked in a consumer product testing laboratory for over a decade now. When she has some time, she likes to write about the science behind everyday objects and more. Her articles can be found on lifestyle, culture and fashion websites and blogs.


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