Glow sticks are popular items for kids. Nighttime is much more exciting with the bright flicker of colorful wands, bracelets, and necklaces. However, many parents are worried about what's inside a glow stick. Specifically, they worry about glow stick toxicity.
Many health experts and pediatric medical centers have provided tips that you can use to keep your kids from getting hurt when using the bright devices. Glow sticks are safe when used properly. In fact, in some cases, they can even enhance safety. But, of course, there are some precautions to consider when using them for fun.
What's Inside a Glow Stick?
Glow sticks, also called light sticks, snap lights, or party sticks, look fairly unremarkable when you buy them. They don't light up until you activate the chemicals inside the plastic tube-which happens when you snap the wand. So what's inside the glow-in-the-dark bracelets that makes the glow happen?
The liquid inside many glow products is a chemiluminescent fluid called dibutyl phthalate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it is a clear, oily liquid that is used to make plastics soft and flexible. It is also used in shower curtains, raincoats, food wraps, bowls, car interiors, vinyl fabrics, floor tiles, and other products.
According to poison control experts, dibutyl phthalate is "low in toxicity." Sometimes packages state that the products are "non-toxic" but medical researchers note that that label isn't entirely accurate. According to the authors of one 2002 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, they are considered "minimally toxic" by most clinicians.
Hydrogen Peroxide Solution
Glow products that don't use dibutyl phthalate use a small glass ampoule that contains a mixture of hydrogen peroxide dissolved in phthalic ester. Surrounding the glass ampoule is another chemical called phenyl oxalate ester. When the wand is snapped, the chemicals combine (often with a dye), and light is produced.
According to a 2021 report in Chemical and Engineering News, most glow sticks sold in novelty stores for consumer use phthalates. Organizations like the US military and the Department of Defense are more likely to use glow sticks made from these other chemicals.
Are Glow Sticks Safe?
While any glow stick you buy in the store is likely to be made with dibutyl phthalate, you may want to check the package just to be safe. Guidance regarding glow stick toxicity and glow stick safety is most often based on the sticks made with dibutyl phthalate, a minimally toxic substance.
Of course, as a parent, the difference between "non-toxic" and "minimally toxic" may still seem concerning. Unfortunately, there is limited evidence about exposure to glow sticks because when they are used properly, kids and adults aren't exposed to the actual chemical. The JAMA Pediatrics report indicates that ingesting large quantities of dibutyl phthalate can cause anaphylaxis and even death. But those quantities are far larger than what would be contained in a glow stick. The study authors say that when they examined reports of 12 young adults who ingested ruptured glow sticks, they found that none of them developed symptoms.
More current research into glow stick safety is limited. But health experts at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia provide updated guidance for parents. On their website, they suggest that if glow sticks are accidentally ingested, the most likely symptom is an upset stomach. They add that some irritation to the mouth may occur and that the plastic device itself can be a choking hazard. Exposing the skin or the eyes to dibutyl phthalate can also cause irritation.
In most cases, medical attention is not needed. Wash exposed skin with soap and water. Flush eyes with water if they are exposed. But if you notice any symptoms that concern you, contact your poison control center immediately.
Lastly, keep glow sticks away from your pets to keep your furry friends safe. The Animal Poison Control Center of the ASCPA explains that both cats and dogs may find glow sticks fun to play with and can puncture the wands as a result. They explain that the liquid has a bitter taste and if your pet ingests it, they may begin drooling. But they suggest giving them a treat or sip of milk to reduce the reaction.
Tips for Using Glow Sticks Safely
According to many of the best resources available, glow sticks and other glowing products do not present an acute danger to children or pets. But there are still a few things you can do to maximize safety when using them.
- Have kids and adults carry glow sticks on Halloween or during other nighttime celebrations to help cars and cyclists see them.
- Keep glow sticks in a locked cabinet or on a high shelf so that pets and small children cannot access them without supervision.
- Glow sticks can last up to 24 hours, but cannot be re-ignited, so there is no reason to keep them after they have been activated the first time.
- Dispose of glow sticks in a sealed trash container after you are done using them.
Lastly, remember to always handle any glow product with care and supervise children who are using them. Small children and pets should not play with glow products. If a glow stick breaks, you do not need to panic, but you can call poison control if you become concerned and need more information. To reach poison control, call (800) 222-1222.