12 Things That Really Glow in the Dark

They range from fireflies to tonic water

Ali Majdfar / Getty Images

Many objects, chemicals, and products emit light via phosphorescence. Some are critters for which glowing serves a purpose, such as fireflies, which glow to attract mates and to discourage predators. Others are radioactive substances, such as radium, which glows as it decays. Tonic water, on the other hand, can be made to glow.

Here are some of the most famous things that glow in the dark:


Fireflies glow to attract mates and also to encourage predators to associate their light with a nasty-tasting meal. The glow is caused by the chemical reaction between luciferin, a compound produced in the tail of the insect, and oxygen from the air.


Radium is a radioactive element that emits a pale blue color as it decays. However, it is best known for its use in self-luminous paints, which tend to be green. The radium itself doesn't emit green light, but the decay of the radium provides the energy to light the phosphor used in the paint.


Not all radioactive elements glow, but plutonium is one of the radioactive materials that does glow. The element reacts with oxygen in the air, causing it to glow a deep red, like a burning ember. Plutonium doesn't glow because of the radiation it gives off, but because the metal essentially burns in the air. It's called being pyrophoric.


Glowsticks or lightsticks emit light as the result of a chemical reaction or chemiluminescence. Generally, this is a two-part reaction in which energy is evolved and then used to excite a colored fluorescent dye.


Jellyfish and related species often exhibit bioluminescence. Also, some species contain fluorescent proteins, causing them to glow when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Fox Fire

Fox fire is a type of bioluminescence exhibited by some fungi. Fox fire most often glows green, but a rare red light occurs in some species.


Phosphorus, like plutonium, glows because it is reacting with oxygen in the air. Phosphors and phosphorus glow an eerie green. Although the element glows, phosphorus is not radioactive.

Tonic Water

Both regular and diet tonic water contain a chemical called quinine, which glows bright blue when exposed to black or ultraviolet light.

Glowing Paper

Whitening agents are added to bleached paper to make it appear brighter. While you don't ordinarily see the whiteners, they cause white paper to appear blue under ultraviolet light.

Some papers are marked with fluorescent dyes that appear only under certain lighting. Banknotes are a good example. Try looking at one under a fluorescent light or a black light to reveal additional information.


Tritium is an isotope of the element hydrogen that emits greenish light. You'll find tritium in some self-luminous paints and gun sights.


Radon is a colorless gas at room temperatures, but it becomes phosphorescent as it is cooled. Radon glows yellow at its freezing point, deepening toward orange-red as the temperature is lowered even further.

Fluorescent Coral

Coral is a type of animal related to jellyfish. Like jellyfish, many forms of coral either glow on their own or when exposed to ultraviolet light. Green is the most common glow-in-the-dark color, but red, orange, and other colors are also known to occur.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "12 Things That Really Glow in the Dark." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/things-that-glow-in-the-dark-607636. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, February 16). 12 Things That Really Glow in the Dark. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/things-that-glow-in-the-dark-607636 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "12 Things That Really Glow in the Dark." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/things-that-glow-in-the-dark-607636 (accessed June 5, 2023).