How Do You Make Things Glow In The Dark?

blacklight slinky party ceiling how do you make things glow in the dark

How do you make things glow in the dark?

You’ve seen things glow in the dark and have wondered “How do you make things glow in the dark?” We’ll break down the science behind glowing in the dark and a few different ways you can make glow in the dark projects for yourself.

How things glow in the dark

Light is made up of tiny objects called photons. Some photons are visible to humans, some are invisible such as infrared (IR) light and ultraviolet (UV) light.

There are three main ways to make something glow in the dark:

  • Chemical reaction (chemiluminescence)
  • Phosphorescence
  • Fluorescence

Chemical Reactions (Chemiluminescence)

Glow sticks and glow necklaces emit light when two different chemicals mix together to create visible light through a process called chemiluminescence.

When you “snap” a glow stick, a small vial of glass breaks inside the tube and when you shake it the chemicals mix together to create a colorful glow. Depending on the mix of chemicals inside the tube or the coloring of the tube itself will determine what color you might see glow.

Popular colors of glow sticks are:

  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Orange
  • Pink
  • Purple
  • Blue
  • Red
  • White

Unlike a light bulb this reaction cannot be turned on or off and once the chemicals are mixed the visible light will last for a 2-6 hours and slowly fade over time.

During the summer you might see fireflies or lightning bugs glowing at night. This process is chemiluminescence. Angler fish are also known for using chemiluminescence to lure prey towards them in the dark of the ocean.

glow sticks chemiluminescence

Glow sticks glow through a chemical reaction called chemiluminescence.

Chemiluminescence

  • Glow light created by a chemical reaction
  • Glow light is limited to the time of the chemical reaction 30min – 24 hours

Phosphorescence

This process occurs when phosphors are embedded in a material that act like little batteries storing visible light and releasing it slowly over time without heat.

Ever put plastic glow stars (or wished to) all over your ceiling when you were a kid?

Those stars absorbed visible light during the day when they were hit with sunlight or light from lamps in the room and released the soft green/yellow glow when the lights were turned off.

Phosphorescence works like a traditional battery you might use in your electronics in which it can only store so much energy and is set to release it over time depending on how it was manufactured.

Phosphorescent objects that can store energy and glow longer over time cost more while objects with shorter glow times cost less.

A lot of safety materials will use phosphorescent materials to glow at night in case the power is cut off.

Phosphorescent items include:

  • Glow stars
  • Glow paint
  • Glow tape
  • Glow ink
  • Glow powder
  • Glow pigment
glowing stars in bedroom phosphoresence

The green glow of these stars are caused by phosphors releasing stored energy through a process known as phosphorescence.

Phosphorescence

  • Glow stored and released by phosphors embedded in a material
  • Glow time typically 30min to 24 hours, impacted by how many phosphors embedded in the material

Fluorescence

If you have ever seen a neon yellow, green, orange, or pink item glow under a special light you’ve seen something fluoresce.

That special light is called ultra violent (UV) light or black light. While most UV light is invisible to humans, when this light reflects off fluorescent materials it modifies the wavelength of the light into a version that humans can see and appears to glow.

Certain colors and materials fluoresce better than others. The best colors for glowing under black light are:

  • Neon green
  • Neon yellow
  • Neon orange
  • Neon pink
  • White

If you’ve ever seen black light posters or have been to cosmic bowling or glow pickleball events, everything that is neon colored or white appears to glow. This can include fingernails, the whites of peoples eyes and their teeth.

The cool thing about black light is that things that are phosphorescent glow even more or recharge more quickly under black light than with regular white light. It also reacts with most chemiluminescent objects and makes them glow brighter, or in the case of glow sticks that no longer glow, black light will bring them back to life to glow again while under black light.

When making things glow in large spaces rent high power black lights to make sure the entire space is illuminated. Or use our handy guide to finding black lights that will work well to illuminate your project.

glowing party room balloons

Balloons and other neon or fluorescent objects glow by fluorescence in the presence of blacklight.

Fluourescence

  • Invisible ultraviolet light hits a fluorescent material and is reflected back as visible light and appears to glow
  • As long as the ultraviolet light is on, the object will glow

What can I do to make glow something glow?

If you have created something and want to make it glow you have a number of options.

One of the easiest and most popular ways to do that is with paint.

Glow Paint

Using fluorescent, phosphorescent, or a 2-in1 paint, you can coat and make an object glow by itself or under black light.

You can find these paints online via Amazon or you can find it at Walmart or most hobby stores that sell paint items like Michaels.

Home Depot and Lowes may carry fluorescent spray paints that are typically used to mark construction projects that work well for larger scale projects.

From our experience these paints tend to be thin and take multiple multiple coats to get them to glow well. Using a white paint primer as a base coat will help speed the process along and allow you to get a good coating on those objects.

Try matching up the paint to the material you are painting, some paints do well adhering to plastics while others do not.

Bonus for using clear phosphorescent paint is that it’s fairly invisible and will glow by itself and will glow well under black light as well.

Highlighters

A cheap and overlooked way to make something glow under fluorescence are office highlighters. You can draw on all types of materials and the thin layer of ink will glow really well under black light.

Look for ones that are non-toxic and they can be used on your skin with no problem. Also fun to mark up white cotton shirts and make it an art project.

One other way to use them is to make liquids and bottles glow. Can be fun to make glow bottles by cutting open the glow stick, taking out the felt ink pad inside, and letting it soak in the liquid. The liquid will take the ink and glow really brightly under blacklight. Also works well with fountains and other water features.

Glow Sticks

Glow sticks, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, or other chemiluminescent items are great for objects that need to glow all by themselves for a set period of time. Think about incorporating them into designs that need to be portable and might not be possible to use with black light.

Glow Tape

Glow tape might be phosphorescent or fluorescent. Good phosphorescent tape tends to be expensive and is used mostly for marking safety objects like stairs, exit signs, or the edge of a stage or backstage in a theater when the lights go off. The expense makes it harder to justify it’s use for temporarily marking sports courts.

Fluorescent tape is great for marking the outline of objects you would like to glow under black light. You’ll see this for temporary applications like outlining a pickleball court, tennis court, volleyball court, basketball court where you need to be able to see the lines well when the lights are off and just the black light is shining.

It can also be used to mark out designs on the floor, walls, clothing or objects like pickleball paddles. Cheap glow tapes will leave residues behind or tear up the surface they are attached to. Quality glow tapes will come up cleanly and leave no residue behind.

2 in 1 phosphorescent and fluorescent paint lets you glow with or without black light

how to use 2 in 1 phosphorescent and fluorescent paint

Best way to use 2 in 1 phosphorescent and fluorescent paint

Stick to the main fluorescent colors of yellow, orange, green, and pink for best results.

glow sticks chemiluminescence

Glow sticks are great for adding glow color wherever you need it.

glow pickleball tape

Fluorescent tape that goes down and comes up cleanly on most surfaces.

Happy Glowing

Glow projects are a lot of fun and now that you have the knowledge on how things glow, now you can go forth and make some awesome glow creations. Send us your photos of your glow projects and we’d love to feature them and link to them from our blog.

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