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What makes a mirror a mirror?

What makes a mirror a mirror?

A mirror is an object that reflects light in a way that preserves much of its original quality subsequent to its contact with the mirror. But what exactly makes a mirror a mirror? What are the key properties that allow a mirror to produce clear reflections? In this article, we’ll explore what makes a mirror a mirror, looking at the physics, materials, and manufacturing processes involved.


The primary characteristic that defines a mirror is its ability to reflect light. When light hits a mirror, it bounces off rather than being absorbed. This occurs due to the mirror’s highly reflective surface. Most mirrors achieve this high reflectivity through the processes of silvering or aluminizing. This deposits a thin layer of a highly reflective metal onto the surface of the mirror.

Traditional mirrors are made by coating glass with molten silver via a chemical process. This creates a smooth, opaque surface that reflects approximately 95% of visible light. More modern mirrors utilize aluminum coatings, which can reflect up to 98% of visible light when deposited under high vacuum conditions.


In order for a mirror to produce clear, undistorted reflections, its surface must be extremely flat and smooth. Any imperfections, warps, or bumps on the surface of a mirror will distort the reflected image.

Most mirrors achieve the necessary flatness through the tempering process. Glass or acrylic mirrors are placed in high-heat ovens which soften the material so it can be flattened. The molten substrate is then allowed to cool and harden in a perfectly smooth, flat plane. This heating and cooling process removes any small imperfections, creating an optically flat surface.

The strict standards for flatness depend on the mirror’s intended use. Precision optical mirrors for telescopes and lasers require nanometer-scale flatness, while common household mirrors only require micrometer-scale flatness. But in all cases, the flatter the mirror, the less distortion in the reflection.

Substrate Material

The base material that makes up the mirror itself is called the substrate. While many different materials can be made into mirrors, glass and acrylic are the most common.


Glass makes an excellent mirror substrate due to its optical clarity, rigidity, and ability to take very smooth finishes. Common grades used for mirrors include soda lime, borosilicate, and fused quartz. Mirrors intended for scientific optical applications often use very pure fused quartz for maximum optical transmission.

After the glass substrate is fabricated to the desired thickness and shape, it undergoes grinding, polishing, and cleaning treatments to prepare the surface for reflective coating. This produces an extremely smooth, flat surface that minimizes scattering and distortion of reflected light.


Acrylic plastic can also form high-quality mirror surfaces when coated with a reflective layer. Acrylic mirrors offer advantages over glass including being lightweight, highly resistant to breakage, and easier to cut and shape.

Acrylic is optically transparent, maintaining >90% light transmission from near UV to near IR wavelengths. This broad spectral transparency combined with modern silver or aluminum coatings allow acrylic mirrors to achieve ~98% visible light reflectivity.

Key advantages of acrylic mirrors:

Advantage Description
Lightweight Acrylic is half the weight of glass, making mirrors easier to mount and transport.
Impact resistance Acrylic withstands impact better than brittle glass and does not shatter.
Temperature tolerance Acrylic maintains good optical and mechanical properties from -40°C to 80°C.

Other Substrates

While glass and acrylic dominate most mirror applications, other materials can also produce reflective surfaces when coated properly. These include:

– Metals like aluminum, silver, gold, copper (create reflective surface directly rather than needing coatings)
– Silicon – used for specialized mirrors and micro-electromechanical (MEMs) devices
– Ceramic compounds (alumina, beryllia) – used for specialized scientific and engineering applications

So in summary, the substrate material forms the smooth, optically clear base that allows reflective coatings to produce high quality mirror surfaces. Glass and acrylic are the most common due to their optical properties, rigidity, manufacturability, and low cost.

Protective Back Coatings

While the front surface coating provides reflectivity, extra coatings are often applied to the back surface of a mirror to protect the reflective layer.

In silvered glass mirrors, a protective paint or lacquer is typically applied to the back of the silver coating. This paint backing provides protection against corrosion and oxidation of the vulnerable silver layer. The paint backing can be left uncovered, or a second plate of glass can be applied to the back to form a protective enclosure.

Aluminum coatings are inherently more durable than silver due to aluminums natural oxidation resistance. However, surface corrosion can still occur over time under humid or saline conditions. Protective overcoats using transparent materials like silicon dioxide or magnesium fluoride are commonly applied to enhance water and chemical resistance.

In acrylic plastic mirrors, a back coating is also commonly applied to prevent static electricity buildup. Charges on the surface can attract dust, dirt and fingerprints that degrade optical quality. Anti-static coatings provide electrical conductivity to dissipate static charges.

So while the front surface coating provides reflectivity, the proper back surface treatments protect the mirror and maintain performance over its lifetime.

Manufacturing Process

Producing quality mirrors requires careful control and execution of the manufacturing process. Here are the key steps involved:

Shaping the Substrate

The substrate material, usually glass or acrylic, is cut, molded, or bent into the desired size and shape. Round, rectangular, and square shapes are most common. The edges are often beveled or polished for safety and aesthetics.

Smoothing and Polishing

The surfaces are ground flat and polished to an optically clear finish. Oscillating abrasive pads and polishing compounds produce progressively finer surfaces down to sub-micron flatness. Multiple stages of smoothing, fining, and polishing remove any imperfections.


A thorough cleaning process removes all traces of dirt, dust, oils, and polishing compounds from the surface which could degrade optical quality. Surfactants, ultrasonic agitation, and high-purity rinse baths produce an immaculate surface for reflective coating.


The highly reflective and durable coating is applied via chemical deposition. In silvering, silver coats the glass surface when a silver nitrate solution is reduced. Aluminum is deposited under high vacuum by thermal evaporation or magnetron sputtering methods. The coating thickness is precisely controlled to optimize reflectivity.

Protective Back Coating

A backing layer may be applied to the reverse side to protect the reflective coating. This improves durability and prevents corrosion. Anti-static coatings prevent dust attraction. A second glass layer can also sandwich and seal the reflective coating.

Quality Testing

Finished mirrors undergo rigorous quality testing and inspection. Optical properties like reflectivity, clarity, flatness, and distortion are all quantified. Tests may also evaluate durability, corrosion resistance, and scratch resistance depending on the grade and application.


A mirror’s ability to produce clear, faithful reflections relies on several key properties:

– A highly reflective coating, usually silver or aluminum, that reflects up to 98% of light. This is deposited through precise chemical processes.

– An extremely flat and smooth substrate surface, achieved through grinding, polishing, and tempering processes with glass or acrylic.

– Optical clarity of the substrate material to transmit reflected light without scattering or distortion.

– Backside coatings to protect the reflective layer from corrosion, oxidation, and static charge buildup.

– Careful manufacturing, cleaning, and quality testing produces durable, high performance mirrors tailored for their application.

So in summary, it is the combination of optimized materials, optical coatings, and precision manufacturing that produces a high quality mirror able to accurately reflect our own image. The marriage of material science, applied physics, and advanced engineering transforms a simple pane of glass or plastic into a magical looking glass.