How does glow-in-the-dark stuff work?

Glow of illuminated lighting equipment at night.
Light stick activation occurs by simply cracking a light stick and allowing the chemicals to mix.

You see glow-in-the-dark stuff in all kinds of places, but it is most common in toys. My son, for example, has a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo, a glow-in-the-dark ball, a glow-in-the-dark mobile and even (if you can believe it) a pair of glow-in-the-dark pajamas! They make him easy to find at night!

If you have ever seen any of these products, you know that they all have to be "charged". You hold them up to a light, and then take them to a dark place. In the dark they will glow for 10 minutes. Some of the newer glow-in-the-dark stuff will glow for several hours. Usually it is a soft green light, and it is not very bright. You need to be in nearly complete darkness to notice it.


All glow-in-the-dark products contain phosphors. A phosphor is a substance that radiates visible light after being energized. The two places where we most commonly see phosphors are in a TV screen or computer monitor and in fluorescent lights. In a TV screen, an electron beam strikes the phosphor to energize it (see How Television Works for details). In a fluorescent light, ultraviolet light energizes the phosphor. In both cases, what we see is visible light. A color TV screen actually contains thousands of tiny phosphor picture elements that emit three different colors (red, green and blue). In the case of a fluorescent light, there is normally a mixture of phosphors that together create light that looks white to us.

Chemists have created thousands of chemical substances that behave like a phosphor. Phosphors have three characteristics:

  • The type of energy they require to be energized
  • The color of the visible light that they produce
  • The length of time that they glow after being energized (known as the persistence of the phosphor)

To make a glow-in-the-dark toy, what you want is a phosphor that is energized by normal light and that has a very long persistence. Two phosphors that have these properties are Zinc Sulfide and Strontium Aluminate. Strontium Aluminate is newer -- it's what you see in the "super" glow-in-the-dark toys. It has a much longer persistence than Zinc Sulfide does. The phosphor is mixed into a plastic and molded to make most glow-in-the-dark stuff.

Occasionally you will see something glowing but it does not need charging. The most common place is on the hands of expensive watches. In these products, the phosphor is mixed with a radioactive element, and the radioactive emissions (see How Nuclear Radiation Works) energize the phosphor continuously. In the past, the radioactive element was radium, which has a half-life of 1600 years. Today, most glowing watches use a radioactive isotope of hydrogen called tritium (which has a half-life of 12 years) or promethium, a man-made radioactive element with a half-life of around three years.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can glow-in-the-dark items be recharged indefinitely, or do they lose their glow over time?
Glow-in-the-dark objects can be recharged repeatedly by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Yet, their glow may weaken over time as the phosphor material degrades, particularly with frequent exposure to intense light sources or UV radiation.
Are there any safety concerns associated with the materials used in glow-in-the-dark items?
Most modern glow-in-the-dark items use safe, non-radioactive phosphors like zinc sulfide and strontium aluminate. However, items using radioactive elements for continuous glow, such as certain watches, are regulated to ensure they are safe for everyday use and exposure.

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