What are Glowsticks?

Mary McMahon

Glowsticks or lightsticks are plastic tubes filled with a chemical compound that emit light when they are bent or snapped, breaking a vial of a reactive compound which floats inside. They were invented in the 1970s, and are used in a variety of applications. Although heavily associated with entertainment events such as raves, glowsticks are also used as safety devices and to provide low-light illumination for campers and divers. They are available in a range of colors and configurations, including bracelets and necklaces.

Divers often carry glowsticks if they intend to explore deep waters or operate at night.
Divers often carry glowsticks if they intend to explore deep waters or operate at night.

Most glowsticks contain three compounds: hydrogen peroxide, phenyl oxalate ester, and a fluorescent dye. Typically, the hydrogen peroxide is kept inside a glass vial within the glowstick. When the glowstick is bent enough for the vial to break, it releases hydrogen peroxide into the phenyl oxalate ester, setting off a chemical reaction which results in a burst of light. The light is colored by the dye. Most glowsticks are calculated to run for several hours, although the reaction can be significantly slowed by putting them in the freezer. Glowsticks can also be made to burn brighter and for a shorter period of time with the application of heat.

Glow sticks use a chemical compound to emit light when snapped or bent.
Glow sticks use a chemical compound to emit light when snapped or bent.

As safety devices, glowsticks are widely used. People of all ages can use them when they are out at night to increase visibility, and many children in particular wear them at Halloween as part of a costume. Glowsticks can also be hung to illuminate dark hallways at theatres to provide light which will not bleed out and be seen by the audience. Campers and divers find them very useful because they are waterproof, do not require batteries, and generate light without heat. Glowsticks are also disposable.

Many music events, especially raves, feature glowsticks. A rave features an array of electronic music, and glowsticks contribute to the atmosphere. Some attendees perform with glowsticks, an activity called “glowsticking.” Glowsticks of various colors may be twirled or juggled through the air, and in the low light conditions of a rave, the performance can be mesmerizing. Some rave attendees also take drugs, which can make glowstick performances appear even more intriguing.

Having glowsticks handy around the house and car for safety is a good idea, especially if you run or walk at night. Many glowsticks have clips, so that you can attach them to clothing rather than having to carry them. Choose a distinct color which will not be mistaken for the light of a car, such as green. Remind residents of the house to use glowsticks and other safety gear while out at night to prevent accidents.

Glow sticks uses bioluminescence chemicals.
Glow sticks uses bioluminescence chemicals.

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Discussion Comments


My daughter wants to do a science fair project making her own glowstick using this reaction. I have been able to find instructions and "recipes" using other chemicals and reactions, but we specifically want this one. How do we get phenyl oxalate ester and do you have information on quantities needed etc.?


how does one make glow sticks and are the chemicals used readily available?

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