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Is neon its own color?

Is neon its own color?

Neon is a gas that emits bright colors when electrified in a glass tube. The most common neon colors are red-orange, blue, and green. But is neon actually its own distinct color, or are neon tube signs creating these colors by mixing other colors together?

Quick Answer

Neon itself does not have a distinct color. The bright colors we associate with neon signs are produced by coating the inside of neon tubes with various phosphors that glow specific colors when excited by electrons. So neon gas itself is not a distinct color, but rather serves as an energy source to produce colored light in neon signs.

How Neon Tube Signs Produce Color

Neon gas glows reddish-orange when an electric current excites the electrons in the neon atoms. But neon tube signs add other chemicals called phosphors to the inside of the tubing to produce different colors. Here’s how it works:

Color Phosphor Chemical
Red-orange No phosphor, just neon gas
Blue Mercury
Green Boron fluoride
White Mix of red, green and blue phosphors

When the neon gas is electrified, its electrons collide with and excite these phosphor chemicals, causing them to emit specific colors. Different phosphor compositions can produce a range of colors.

So neon signs use pure neon gas to produce red-orange light. All other colors are produced by tailored phosphor coatings on the tubing that glow when exposed to neon’s electrons.

The Colors of Ionized Neon

Neon gas does glow reddish-orange when ionized by electricity in a tube without any phosphors. This is the natural emission color of neon plasma.

However, neon plasma can also glow blue or violet if generated under different conditions. A higher electrical current density in the tube can excited additional electrons in the neon atoms, yielding violet or blue light emission. This effect is called a “blue phase” or “blue mode” of neon plasma.

So while the typical glow of neon plasma is reddish-orange, it can also appear blue or violet under specific excitation conditions. But these are still not distinct “neon colors” – they are simply different wavelengths of light that ionized neon gas can emit depending on its electrical excitation.

Can Neon Be Considered a Color?

Given that neon gas glows reddish-orange on its own, could this still reasonably be considered “the color of neon”? The answer is complicated:

Perspective Argument
FOR: Neon is a color
  • Neon plasma has a characteristic reddish-orange glow
  • This color is directly emitted by the neon atoms
  • No other chemicals needed to produce this color
AGAINST: Neon is not a color
  • Color comes from neon’s plasma state, not the gas itself
  • Ionized neon can also glow blue or violet
  • Other gases glow different colors when ionized

There are good points on both sides. While neon plasma does glow a characteristic color, the fact that the color comes from the plasma effect rather than the gas itself suggests neon is not inherently a distinct color. Overall, the evidence weighs toward neon not being considered its own color, but reasonable arguments can be made on both sides.

Historical Use of the Term “Neon Color”

While neon gas itself may not be a distinct color, the term “neon color” emerged in the 1930s to describe the brightly-lit tube signs:

  • In the 1930s, neon tube signs gained popularity in advertising and architecture
  • They used novel, bright colors not widely seen before in lighting
  • People referred to these distinctive “neon colors” as a shorthand
  • The name referenced the neon gas used to produce the colors

So historically, “neon color” has been used to mean vibrant, saturated colors like those seen in neon signs. But scientifically speaking, these colors do not come directly from the neon gas itself. The term is more metaphorical and cultural than literal.

Are Neon Sign Colors Always “Pure” Neon Emission?

Another complexity around neon’s color identity is that neon tube signs don’t always exclusively show light emitted directly from neon or phosphor emissions:

  • Tube coatings and shapes can create a “scattering” effect
  • This can blend the neon and phosphor emissions together
  • Indirect scattering can mute and spread the colors
  • This creates the soft, diffused glow neon signs are known for

So neon signs colors aren’t always “pure” phosphor emissions or neon plasma. Subtleties of how the tubes scatter light can blend the emitted colors into new combinations. This can further confuse the notion of associating specific neon colors with the gas itself.


In summary:

  • Neon gas does not have its own distinct color
  • Ionized neon plasma glows reddish-orange, and sometimes blue/violet
  • Neon tube signs use added phosphors to produce other colors
  • “Neon color” is a cultural term for bright, saturated colors like neon signs
  • Color mixing and scattering effects create blended neon sign colors

So while “neon color” has meaning culturally, scientifically neon does not produce its own distinct colors. The vibrant colors of neon signs come from complex interactions between neon plasma, tailored phosphors, and subtle secondary color effects. But neon gas itself has no singular identifiable color.

Other Properties of Neon Besides Color

Beyond its role in colored lighting, neon has some other important properties:

  • Density – 0.9002 g/L at 0 °C
  • Atomic number – 10
  • Melting point – -248.67°C
  • Boiling point – -246.08°C
  • Stable isotopes – 3

Neon occurs naturally as a minor component in the atmosphere. Along with helium, hydrogen, and nitrogen, neon is one of the most abundant elements in the universe.

Neon has the narrowest liquid range of any element and cannot be solidified at standard pressure. It is used in specialized applications like wave meter tubes, voltage indicators, lightning arrestors, and helium-neon lasers.

So while neon lighting displays are its most visible use, the gas has many other unique properties beyond its role in producing colors for signs. It is a versatile element used in technology, manufacturing, and scientific applications.

In Pop Culture

Neon lighting has strong pop culture associations thanks to its vibrant colors and retro appearance:

  • Strongly linked to 1980s aesthetics in music, film, and fashion
  • Often invoked to create a sense of visual nostalgia
  • Used in cyberpunk, retrofuturism, and science fiction
  • Associated with urban nightlife and entertainment districts
  • Prominent in Las Vegas and Tokyo aesthetics

Neon lighting evokes a sense vibrancy, electricity, and nostalgia in modern pop culture. Its unique aesthetic makes it a visual shorthand for artists and creators looking to quickly establish a specific tone or feeling. Neon colors retain a strong cultural identity even as neon lighting technology evolves.

New Technology

While traditional glass tube neon signs are iconic, new lighting technologies offer more options:

Technology How it Works Benefits
  • Light emitting diodes
  • Electrons excite phosphor to emit color
  • Lower power use
  • Greater durability
  • More flexibility
Cold cathode
  • Electrified electrodes excite phosphor
  • Doesn’t heat and reshape tube
  • Maintains neon aesthetic
  • More color options
  • Lower operating costs

New lighting tech allows the brightly-colored neon aesthetic in more energy efficient and customizable formats. But traditional neon tubing retains unique appeal as a historical artifact.


While neon tubes create vibrant colored lighting, neon gas itself does not have a distinct color. The cultural notion of “neon color” emerged from early signage, but scientifically it is phosphors and plasma physics that produce the range of neon sign hues. Yet neon lighting retains unique appeal and strong associations across history, culture and technology. So while not a color itself, neon plays an important role in colorful lighting innovations spanning decades.