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Why are mirrors always silver?

Why are mirrors always silver?

Mirrors have been used by humans for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Throughout history, mirrors have predominantly been made with reflective silver or other metal coatings on glass. This leads to the common question – why are mirrors always silver?

The simple answer is that silver is the best reflective surface for visible light. Silver is the most reflective metal across the full visible light spectrum, reflecting up to 95% of light. This makes it ideal for mirrors designed for human vision. Other metals like aluminum have higher reflectivity in parts of the spectrum, but silver is superior across the entire visible range.

How Mirrors Work

To understand why silver is used for mirrors, it helps to understand how mirrors work in the first place. Mirrors operate based on the law of reflection, which states that the angle of reflection equals the angle of incidence. This means that when light hits a surface, it bounces off at the same angle it arrived from the opposite direction.

For a surface to act as a good mirror, it needs to reflect as much of the incoming light as possible. The reflectivity or reflective rate of a material refers to what percentage of light is reflected. A perfectly reflective material would have 100% reflectivity, while a dull black surface might only reflect 5% of incoming light. Reflectivity is also dependent on the wavelength or color of light – some materials are more reflective for certain colors.

Why Silver is Ideal for Visible Light Reflection

Silver stands out as the most reflective material across the full visible light wavelength range from around 400 nanometers (violet) to 700 nanometers (red). Here’s how the reflectivity of silver compares to other reflective metals and materials:

Material Reflectivity %
Silver 95-99%
Aluminum 80-95%
Gold 70-95%
Copper 70-90%
Steel 65-70%

As you can see, silver outpaces other metals in visible light reflectivity. Aluminum and gold come closest, but still fall short of silver. The elemental properties of silver make it the most electrically conductive metal, and this also allows it to be highly light reflective.

Other Benefits of Using Silver for Mirrors

In addition to having the highest reflectivity, silver offers other benefits that make it an ideal mirror coating:

  • Durability – Silver resists corrosion and oxidation better than other metals.
  • Clarity – Silver coating produces very clear, crisp images in mirrors.
  • Stability – Silver coatings hold up well to environmental factors over time.
  • Cost – Silver is more affordable option than other highly reflective metals like gold.

Modern mirrors utilize a process called silvering to coat glass. This usually involves spraying silver nitrate and other chemicals onto the back of glass panes. The silver nitrate penetrates the glass and is reduced to metallic silver, forming a smooth and reflective coating.

Types of Mirrors and Coatings

While silver is the primary choice for most visible light mirrors, other types of coatings are sometimes used for specialized mirrors:

Mirror Type Coating Material
Aluminum Aluminized glass, Aluminum coating
Infrared Gold, Silver-gold alloy
One-way Gold, Platinum, Tin oxide
Parabolic Aluminum, Silver
Telescope Aluminum, Silver

Aluminum can reflect up to 95% of visible light, so it is sometimes used as a cheaper alternative to silver, especially for things like household mirrors. Gold, platinum and other metals have specialized reflective properties that make them useful for one-way mirrors or reflecting infrared radiation in scientific applications.

The Future of Mirror Coatings

Researchers continue to explore new types of coatings and nano-engineered surfaces that could outperform traditional silver mirror coatings in the future. Some areas of investigation include:

  • Dielectric coatings – Ultra-thin layered coatings made of non-metallic materials like magnesium fluoride or silicon dioxide. Can achieve high reflectivity by constructive and destructive interference of light.
  • Distributed Bragg reflectors – Structured thin-film coatings with alternating high and low refractive indexes, creating a mirror effect through interference.
  • Metamaterials – Engineered nanoscale surface textures that interact with light in unique ways to produce reflection, refraction or absorption.
  • Hybrid silver-metal oxides – Composite coatings that may combine benefits of silver with corrosion-resistant metal oxide chemistry.

However, silver’s superior visible light reflectivity, ease of application and reasonably low cost mean it is likely to remain the go-to coating material for most mirror applications into the foreseeable future. There are decades or centuries worth of silver coating know-how that would need to be superseded.


In summary, silver has remained the dominant material used for mirror coatings due to its uniquely high reflectivity across the entire visible light spectrum. Other metals like aluminum come close, but none can beat pure silver for visible light reflection. Combined with silver’s relative abundance, stability, corrosion resistance and ease of application as a coating, it is no wonder that inventors and manufacturers settled on silver for mirrors centuries ago. Advancements in nanotechnology may eventually produce coatings that can outperform silver, but its position as the mirror coating of choice for visibility and value is secure for now.