September 30, 2022: What are the Toxic Effects of Glowsticks?


September 30, 2022

What are the Toxic Effects of Glowsticks?

Cracking a plastic stick and then waiting for the magical glow moment is a favorite childhood memory. Glow sticks, commonly found at celebrations, can be necklaces, hats, bracelets, etc. But what makes it glow? The answer is the process of chemiluminescence. This process is an exergonic chemical reaction. The components of this reaction include: Fluorophore dye which gives the color

  • Diphenyl oxalate which provides energy for light
  • Hydrogen peroxide which provides energy for light
  • Dibutyl phthalate which is the solvent for the reaction

Cracking of the stick allows for reagents to interact and create a byproduct that bonds to the dye and then glows. But can harm occur when the cracking gets too vicious, the glow stick starts to leak, or if someone decides to drink the liquid?

The three common pathways for toxic exposure are oral, ocular, and dermal. Oral exposure can cause a burning sensation in the mouth and gastrointestinal symptoms that resolve with eating more basic substances such as ice cream. If the liquid gets in the eye, the eye should be irrigated immediately with water. If the irritation continues for greater than 15 minutes then a further eye exam is needed, and the patient should be instructed to see a healthcare provider. Although irritation should occur, ocular damage should not occur. Dermal exposure causes mild irritation but washing the skin should resolve symptoms.

Dibutyl Phthalate (the solvent) has been reported to cause significant morbidity and mortality when ingested in large quantities in industrial exposures. The quantity is significantly less in glow stick products making a serious reaction unlikely. In a study of glow stick exposures, there were no systemic toxic reactions.

Overall exposure to a chemiluminescent product is a common call to the poison center and usually requires only reassurance to the caller.


Hoffman, R. J., Nelson, L. S., & Hoffman, R. S. (2002). Pediatric and young adult exposure to chemiluminescent glow sticks. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 156(9), 901.

Cairns, R., Brown, J. A., Dawson, A. H., Davis, W., & Buckley, N. A. (2018). Carols by Glow Sticks: A retrospective analysis of Poisons Information Centre Data. Medical Journal of Australia, 209(11), 505–508.

Halford, B. (n.d.). What are glow sticks, and what’s the chemical reaction that makes them light up? Retrieved August 25, 2022


Question of the Week prepared by Claci Ayers, Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellow, VUMC  


Comment: With Halloween around the corner, glowsticks will abound. Good to know what the toxic concerns are with this product. OF course, we always have the Poison Center to call regarding any atypical exposures. ds 

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