The Dangers of Glow Sticks – Do Not Open Up Sealed Glow Sticks

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

Glow sticks are incredibly popular in the warm summer evenings. Almost as popular as during Halloween time.  They are sold at many events and are found in stores everywhere. Steve Spangler Science also sells a few different varieties of glow sticks.

Kids love cracking them and watching the light glow like a firefly.

In watching blogs and sites like Pinterest for science experiments and activities to share, I have come across several how to’s that involve breaking open glow sticks. One involves adding the goo from glow sticks to bubble solution.

This is not a good idea.

Are glow sticks safe?
They are safe, as long as precautions are followed and the chemicals are kept inside. Cutting open a glow stick can also cause the broken shards of glass to fall out.

Packaging on glow sticks says they are non-toxic. However, the safety warnings on glow sticks read not to puncture or cut the plastic cover on the glow stick. Keep the chemicals contained, and glow sticks are a safe activity.

Glow sticks contain chemicals. Not deadly dangerous chemicals, but chemicals that should be handled and treated with respect. Some glow products use a chemical called dibutyl phthalate. Other glow products contain a small glass vial inside the plastic tube that contains a mixture of hydrogen peroxide in phthalic ester. Outside of the glass vial is another chemical called phenyl oxalate ester. When the tube is cracked, the glass inside is broken and the chemicals all mix together in a reaction that causes the glow.

Dibutyl phthalate is used to help make plastics soft and flexible. It is also used in glues, nail polish, leather, inks and dyes.

Hydrogen peroxide is used as a cleaning agent. Over the counter hydrogen peroxide is diluted and not as strong as the hydrogen peroxide found in glow sticks. This hydrogen peroxide  is corrosive to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. This is the type of hydrogen peroxide used in Steve’s Elephant’s Toothpaste demonstration. It is not meant to be handled or mixed into other solutions.

Glow Powder and Mini Black Light | Steve Spangler SciencePhthalic ester is a substance that is added to plastics to increase flexibility, durability and transparency. Phthalates are being phased out in many products due to health concerns.

Phenyl oxalate ester is responsible for the luminescence in a glow stick. The reaction with hydrogen peroxide causes the liquid inside a glow stick to glow.

These chemicals can sting and burn eyes, irritate and sting skin and can burn the mouth and throat if ingested. If the chemicals are ingested or spilled in the eyes or on the skin, it is recommended the area is rinsed with water and the local poison control center contacted.

The chemicals can also cause harm to your pet if a pet chews or ingests a light stick. They taste really bitter, so your pet probably won’t continue chewing or eating the chemicals inside. Watch the pet for excessive drooling or eye or nose irritation.

Poison control centers report that they get numerous calls about potential glow stick poisoning around Independence Day and Halloween.

Like I mentioned earlier, we love glow in the dark activities. We even sell an entire line of glow in the dark science toys. But we want to stress that when using any types of chemicals, the proper precautions and warnings are followed to ensure safe science.

So what if you want to re-create these cool ideas found on the web and Pinterest? Find a glowing substance that isn’t as harmful as those found inside glow sticks. Tonic water is completely safe and will glow under a black light.

At Steve Spangler Science, we sell Glow Powder, which is zinc sulfide. This powder can be mixed with liquids like glue to make almost anything glow in the dark. The best thing about Glow Powder, is it will work over and over and over again and not die out like the glow in glow sticks.

Zinc sulfide is non-toxic, but it still isn’t a good idea to add it to bubble solution or get it near faces, especially the eyes and throat.

Treat all chemicals with caution and care, no matter if they are listed as toxic or non-toxic. An adult should always be present when using chemicals and proper safety materials like safety glasses and gloves should be used when recommended to protect eyes and skin.

Keep in mind that this is not an attempt to sell our glowing concoctions. You do not need to purchase it from us. Google zinc sulfide and purchase it elsewhere if you’d prefer, just don’t crack open glow sticks to get glowing solutions.

Glow in the Dark Bubbles

This idea is very cool and we have tried in our Spangler labs to make glowing bubbles ourselves. But this just doesn’t work. You can make the solution glow in the dark, but once the bubble is blown, the walls of the bubble are too thin to reflect the light and glow. We have also tried over the counter glow in the dark bubble solution found in many stores. Again, the solution glows, but once the bubbles are blown, they do not glow. Although this activity sounds like a lot of after dark fun, it can be dangerous, especially if the solution is accidentally swallowed or blown into the eyes. We recommend you keep the glow in the dark chemicals and the bubbles separate for safety.

A safer alternative for glow in the dark bubbles, if you still want to try it, is to use Tonic Water. Tonic Water is safe to ingest and will glow under a black light.

Mountain Dew Glowing Hoax

A few years ago, a video surfaced where a guy mixed hydrogen peroxide and baking soda with Mountain Dew. When he mixed it, the solution glowed, showing Mountain Dew glowed in the dark. This was proven a hoax almost immediately after it surfaced. Wired.com and Snopes.com both posted explanations for how this prank worked.

The prankster slipped the liquid from a glow stick, like Phenyl oxalate ester, into the Mountain Dew. When the hydrogen peroxide and ester mixed, the solution began to glow. The Mountain Dew had nothing to do with the substance glowing.

So if someone offers you a glowing Mountain Dew, refuse it!

 

28 thoughts on “The Dangers of Glow Sticks – Do Not Open Up Sealed Glow Sticks”

  1. Thank you for the information. Too often we get caught up in a “cool idea” and do not think of the dangers or consequences.

  2. Thanks for sharing – I never realized that glow sticks could actually be dangerous. Is it still dangerous to be around the glow stick chemicals if it breaks, even if they do not come into contact with the skin or eyes?

    1. Hi Allison – not really, although you don’t want to inhale the fumes that could possibly come from the chemical reaction. The harm will come from coming in contact with the chemicals, that is why we recommend they are not used around children.

  3. Thank you for this information. My 2yr old grandson loves glow sticks. He still puts things in his mouth sometimes so this is very important to know!

  4. About 15 years ago, I accidentally broke a glow stick and set it (upright) on a wooden bookshelf painted white. Not the best idea, but I was around 7 at the time. Of course, it fell over in the night, and in the morning, the concoction inside had seared through the paint and into the wood! I’ve been wary of glow sticks since then!

  5. Please also be careful of the $1 packages of bracelets you can get just about everywhere… obviously they are almost always given to young children who bend then and often snap them, my 8yr old has had many leak w/o even trying to do anything to them other then wear them.. once she took one off (not knowing it was leaking) and left it on top of our tv cabinet, just like the posted above it removed all of the stain and varnish from my cabinet and also ruined the 2 dvd’s it leaked over onto… expensive lesson!

  6. Hi Steve,

    Is there a safe way to make a glowing “solution” to use as part of a Halloween costume? (Ghostbusters – ectoplasm)
    We won’t have a black light, so we need something that glows on its own. It will need to be in a jar clipped to a belt and/or “backpack” (or a series of baby soda tubes – love ‘em!).

    I thought that I’d open some glow sticks and pour them into a tube or jar and then seal it up. But if that is a bad idea ….

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Julia – you can use Glow Powder mixed in water or even sprinkled on a costume. It does not need a black light to glow, but as with any glow in the dark substance, it will need to be charged with a light to continually glow. Or what about taking a glow stick and wrapping it inside a jar? Don’t break it open, just stuff it inside a clear container and it will glow. Here’s a link to glow powder – http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/product/1586 – it can be used for all kinds of projects. Be incredibly careful not to inhale it, but you can sprinkle the powder on a costume or brush it on skin to make anything and everything glow in the dark!

  7. hi, just wondering about the ‘glowbubbles’ if you wear gloves and something to cover your mouth would it be OK? Or is it just a really, really bad and should never be messed with?
    Thanks!!

  8. Thanks for writing this – i came across a DIY tip on Pinterest just now that suggested pouring out the goo from glow sticks into jars for instant lanterns. I immediately thought “is that safe?!”. My first thoughts were that the contents may be radio active (low levels but probably still not safe to touch). So I googled ‘is it safe to open a glow stick’ and this page came up. Its a very clear article and i definitely won’t be playing with glow stick goo after reading this. Thanks for letting everyone know of the dangers!

  9. My daughter had a glow stick leak on her bed and into her mattress. I washed the sheets and can flip the mattress. Is that a good enough idea? Should I throw them out? We are usually wary of any type of phthalate. Is it dangerous for her to be sleeping on, cancer risk etc?

    1. Hi Dana – I’m not completely sure if the glow stick ingredients would be dangerous to sleep on. My suggestion is to call poison control in your area and ask their advice. I’d also make sure there are no glass shards left in the sheets or mattress. Good luck

  10. I JUST WANNA KNOW THAT IF YOU DO BREAK OPEN A GLOW STICK BUT YOU DONT TOUCH OR EAT IT, WILL IT MAKE YOU DIE? I ASKED MY MOM AND SHE SAID YES. o_o

    1. Hanna – You won’t die by just opening a glow stick. But you do open yourself up to dangers like the chemicals that are inside and the potential glass shards (depending on how your glow stick was manufactured.) Never ingest the contents of a glow stick. Overall it’s best not to open a glow stick and use it for its intended uses.

    1. Hi Joel – I’m not clear with what you are calling “pseudoscience.” We do not make any claims that glow sticks are fatal or incredibly dangerous. Our message in this post is to treat all chemicals with respect and know what you are using before giving it to a child. Use common science sense.

  11. Thanks for the usefull info. I shared this since hundreds of people think u can give these chemicals to children.

  12. What % is the Hydrogen Peroxide in them? I use 35% and 17% at work and I know that it can feel quite nasty if you get even a little on you (think -sticking your hand in a bucket of needles) Basically it’s oxidizing your skin, thus your nerve endings go crazy! ANYWAY…. i’ve realized that if you go get any on you, and it stings…..liberally coat the area with hand lotion…..a good thick coating! It will help rehydrate the area and ease the discomfort.

  13. This is basically advertisement for their glow powder. Make people afraid of glow sticks while plugging another product.

    Glow sticks are mostly harmless. Yes, they can cause irritation, but it is STILL non-toxic. It wont kill you, wont even make you sick.

    http://www.ncpoisoncenter.org/body.cfm?id=117

    There are also no fumes. Try researching before fear-mongering.

    1. Hi Mike – we appreciate your comments, but if you actually read our post, we don’t say glow sticks will kill you or even discourage people from purchasing them. We don’t want anyone to open up a glow stick without the understanding of what’s inside. On glow stick packing, the safety warning states not to crack them open. The chemicals are listed as non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow package directions or handle them safely. They can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat.

      We are sharing the science and chemicals behind glow sticks and other glowing material, so parents and their children will make informed decisions.

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