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Are Glow Sticks Toxic? A Guide to Chemical Glow Safety

Are Glow Sticks Toxic?

In a safety conscience society, this is probably one of the most over-looked safety questions about these adventurous toys that have become a fond childhood memory for most of us. A glow stick can easily be considered a staple item when taking the kids to a carnival, barbeque, or circus. Such a staple in fact, that the question of safety can easily be overlooked.

When taking a family trip to the carnival it is often the first thing that catches the children’s eye when navigating through the crowds and waiting in line. It’s not so much a question of IF but rather WHEN the begging for the glow-in-the-dark necklace or bracelet begins. After little consideration, you eventually cave-in to purchasing that oh-so-important toy that they just have to have and continue on your way.

In most cases, the glow sticks start to become dim and lose their luster the next day, and at that point in time you just toss it into the trash can, continuing on with your day. But what if things do not go as planned? What if you have a curious toddler who likes to chew on anything they can get their hands onto? Or a rambunctious 6 year old who doesn’t know their own strength? Or even a beloved family pet that tends to think various items are their own personal chew toys? Before you know it, you have a child or pet that is glowing from the mouth, hands, and any other body part that has come into contact with the mysterious liquid inside the capsule. Now what?

Before exploring the mysterious liquid in a glow stick, we must ask: how exactly are glow sticks made and what components are involved? As we’ve discussed previously, these glow products use a chemical called dibutyl phthalate, which is used to help make plastics soft and flexible and can be found in products such as shower curtains, raincoats, bowls, car interiors, vinyl fabrics, and other products. Other glow products contain a small glass vial inside the plastic tube that contains a mixture of hydrogen peroxide in phthalic ester (a substance that is added to plastics to increase flexibility, durability and transparency). Outside of the glass vial is another chemical called phenyl oxalate ester. When the outer container is flexed, the inner container breaks, allowing the solutions to combine, causing the necessary chemical reaction. After breaking, the tube is shaken to thoroughly mix the two components.

Now that the main components and ingredients are known, we must ask the big question: are they safe? In a short and simple answer; yes, they are safe. Glow sticks can be used for a variety of occasions and in an abundance of circumstances, ranging from child amusement to exploration to disaster readiness. They are not going to be the source of a toxic combination to result in death or serious illness. With that said, glow sticks do contain substances that should be handled with care and should be used responsibly.

In 2002, WebMD Health News released a small study to determine the safety of glow sticks. The study was completed on 118 people under age 25 who arrived at their local poison control center due to exposure to the fluid in the glow sticks. Only 23% of the complaints reported irritation at the point of contact. The most common areas affected were the mouth, throat, eye, and/or skin. Of the 23% that reported complaints of irritation:

  • Of those who ingested the fluid, four stated that they felt nauseous, vomited, and/or had a bad taste in their mouths.
  • There were no cases of symptoms lasting longer than several hours.
  • There were zero complaints of reoccurrence
  • Those who swallowed the intact, small glow sticks did not develop any symptoms.

It is also stated that the quantity of toxic material in glow sticks, glowing jewelry, and the like is minimal. They recommended that should the fluid get into the eye or on the skin, cleansing with water is the only treatment necessary. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia reports that, "dibutyl phthalate is not a poison; it is an irritant. The best treatment for any exposure to dibutyl phthalate is water."

While it may not be a common occurrence for a glow stick to break open, accidents do happen. So if you do find a loved one glowing from the mouth in the backseat on the way home from the carnival, do not panic and follow these recommendations:

Eye Contact

Any foreign substance you get in your eyes is likely to cause irritation, whether it’s shampoo when you’re washing your hair in the shower, falling dust from the top shelf of a book case that you finally decided to clean, or the glowing liquid from a glow stick. In any case, your first instinct is to close and rub your eyes with your hands. In the case of getting the glowing liquid from a glow stick in your eyes (dibutyl phthalate), you have to refrain from rubbing them at all costs. Once dibutyl phthalate is in the eyes it will sting immediately and can cause a burning sensation and tearing. The first thing you need to do is get to a sink or source of water and begin flushing your eyes out. The reason for not rubbing your eye with your hands is because you may also have the substance on your hands, and you will then be making a bad situation worse. So as hard as it may be, let your eyes burn and tear (the tearing part is good - it's the body's natural way of ridding itself of chemicals) and get to a sink to begin flushing your eyes with water for about 15 to 20 minutes. If the discomfort persists after flushing, do not hesitate to seek medical attention.

Skin Contact

If dibutyl phthalate is splashed on the skin, it will cause stinging, redness, and irritation. Flush with water and soap and later apply a topical cream if the irritation continues.

Ingestion

If your child swallows dibutyl phthalate, the substance may cause mouth and throat discomfort and soreness. You should rinse their mouth very well with plain water and then drink a cold beverage. It is also recommended to contact the poison control center. If discomfort persists, ice cream or ice water and popsicles are also recommended (which will definitely taste better than fluorescent fluid!).

As for the other non-human members of your family, if you come home to find that your dog or cat has managed to chew into a package of glow sticks, Animal Poison Control reports that glow products are a low toxicity problem. Glow products may cause intense taste sensations in animals along with the possibility of an upset stomach, but no serious problems should occur unless a very large amount is ingested.

According to all the best resources available, glowing products do not present an alarming amount of danger to children or pets. You should always handle any glow product with care and supervise children who are using it. Glow sticks do contain substances that should be handled with care and be used responsibly. If an accident does occur it is not necessary to panic or make a trip to the emergency room, just make sure to thoroughly rinse and clean the area of contact.


Alright, so we've established glow stick safety guidelines, and that they're safe enough for children to play with when accompanied by adult supervision. Glow products come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and are an affordable toy for your children or fun way to brighten up your next event. Check out our selection of glow products below to learn more!

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