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What do colors look like under a black light?

Black lights, also known as UV lights or Wood’s lamps, emit ultraviolet radiation that causes certain materials to fluoresce or glow. When illuminated with a black light, some colors appear brighter or are transformed into different colors entirely. Understanding how colors respond to black light radiation can be useful for artists, scientists, security personnel, and anyone else working with UV reactive materials.

How Black Lights Work

A black light is a lamp that emits long wave ultraviolet (UVA) light. This type of UV light has wavelengths between 320-400 nanometers, which is just beyond the violet end of the visible light spectrum. When UVA light strikes certain materials, the photons excite electrons in the atoms of the material to higher energy states. As the electrons drop back down to their ground states, energy is released in the form of visible light, causing the material to glow. This process is called fluorescence.

Many common materials contain fluorescent additives designed to make them glow under black light. Fluorescent dyes and pigments are frequently added to paper, textiles, inks, detergents, and personal care products to produce bright colors and optical effects. Organic substances such as chlorophyll, vitamin A, and proteins naturally emit fluorescence as well. Additionally, minerals such as opal and ruby contain impurities that fluoresce.

Common Colors and Their Black Light Appearance

Here is an overview of how some common colors appear under black light illumination:

Color Black Light Appearance
White Glows bright blue, purple, or pinkish-white
Black Remains black or dark gray
Red May glow orange, yellow, green, or not at all
Yellow Glows yellowish-green or bright yellow
Green Glows yellowish-green or bright green
Blue Glows bright blue or does not glow
Violet Glows bright blue or does not glow

As seen above, white objects usually display the most dramatic transformations under black light. This is because white fabrics, paper, and other materials are easily infused with fluorescent brighteners and whiteners during manufacturing. Brighteners absorb invisible UV radiation and re-emit it as visible blue light, making materials appear brighter and whiter in daylight. Under black light, the brighteners shine brilliantly.

Factors that Determine Black Light Effects

Several factors influence the way colors respond under black light illumination:

Fluorescent Dyes and Pigments

Fluorescent additives are intentionally added to many colored materials to enhance their appearance under UV light. Fluorescent dyes and pigments absorb short wave UV rays and emit longer wavelengths in the visible range. Different fluorescent compounds emit various colors, allowing manufacturers to produce UV reactive colors like neon pink, green, orange, and yellow.

Optical Brighteners

As mentioned earlier, optical brighteners make white materials appear whiter by converting UV light into blue visible light. This effect causes white fabric, paper, detergent, and more to shine piercingly bright under black light.

Ultraviolet Ink

Inks that fluoresce under UV are often used for security printing on documents such as money, stamps, and IDs. These UV reactive inks are colorless in daylight but glow strongly under black light. UV ink is also popular for creating colorful artistic effects with markers and paints.

Organic Compounds

Many natural organic substances, like vitamins, proteins, and chlorophyll, absorb UV radiation and emit their own fluorescence. This causes organic materials to shine under a black light. Examples include human skin, bacteria, fruit, plants, feathers, seashells, minerals, and more.

Chemical Coatings

Special chemical coatings can be applied to objects to give them a fluorescent color under black light. Varnishes, waxes, oils, and polishes with UV reactive compounds produce bright colors when illuminated with shortwave UV rays.

Particle Size

The intensity of fluorescence depends partially on particle size. Finely ground fluorescent pigments and dyes glow more brightly than coarse particles. Similarly, thin coatings of fluorescent chemicals exhibit more vivid effects than thick coatings.

UV Light Source

Different UV light sources have different wavelengths that elicit unique fluorescent responses from materials. Long wave UV lamps around 365 nm provide the classic black light effect. Shorter wave UV lamps around 254 nm can produce extremely bright fluorescence from specialized materials.

Common Black Light Effects

Beyond simply illuminating colors, black lights can reveal hidden images, patterns, and substances through unique effects. Some interesting examples include:

Invisible Ink

Invisible ink made from fluorescent dyes is easily readable under black light but invisible in normal light. This allows for secret messaging applications.

Security Features

Many documents like IDs, passports, money, and tickets have hidden UV symbols, fibers, and watermarks that are revealed under black light to prevent counterfeiting.

Stains and Residues

Organic stains, spills, and residues often fluoresce brightly, allowing black lights to be used to locate bodily fluids, rodent urine trails, and other hard-to-see forensic evidence.

Dental Plaque

Plaque buildup on teeth fluoresces under UV light, which is why black lights can be used to improve dental hygiene.


The exoskeletons of scorpions contain fluorescent chemicals that glow an eerie green when illuminated with UV lamps, making it easier to locate the venomous arachnids.

Gemstone Authentication

Gemologists use UV lighting to check for fluorescence that can help identify natural stones and detect treated or lab-created gems.

Artistic Effects

Black light posters, paints, and decor items are popular for creating fun and colorful UV lighting effects for parties, events, and home decoration.

Safety Tips for Working with Black Lights

Black lights are relatively safe, but it is important to take some precautions when working with UV radiation:

  • Never look directly at the UV bulb, as this can cause eye strain and irritation.
  • UV radiation can damage skin, so limit exposure and wear sunscreen if necessary.
  • Some materials may not fluoresce visibly but can still degrade under UV exposure, including plastics, dyed textiles, and photographs.
  • UV lamps can contain mercury and should be disposed of properly. Handle with care to avoid breakage.
  • Work in a dimly lit room to allow eyes to adjust and see fluorescent effects more easily.


When illuminated under a black light, colors can appear dramatically different than they look under normal lighting conditions. The UV radiation excites fluorescent compounds and optical brighteners to emit a visible glow. White materials usually exhibit the most vivid effects, shining bright blue, purple, or pinkish-white. Other colors may fluoresce as well, or remain unchanged in appearance. The specific color response depends on factors like fluorescent dye composition, particle size, UV wavelength, and more. Black lights are useful for creating colorful effects, detecting forensic evidence, enhancing security features, and other novel applications involving UV reactive materials.