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Why do dark colors absorb more heat than the light?

Why do dark colors absorb more heat than the light?

Dark colors absorb more heat than light colors because they have a lower albedo. Albedo is a measure of how much light or radiation is reflected by a surface. Surfaces with a lower albedo absorb more sunlight and hence heat up more. There are several reasons why dark colors have lower albedo than light colors:

Light Absorption and Reflection

The color of an object depends on which wavelengths of visible light it absorbs and which ones it reflects. For example:

  • A red object absorbs all wavelengths except red, which it reflects.
  • A blue object absorbs all wavelengths except blue, which it reflects.
  • A black object absorbs all visible wavelengths and reflects little light.
  • A white object reflects all visible wavelengths and absorbs little light.

When sunlight hits an object, some of it is absorbed and some of it is reflected. The reflected light reaches our eyes and we see the color of that object. The absorbed light is converted into heat. Dark colors absorb more sunlight across the visible spectrum than light colors, so they heat up more.


The color of an object depends on pigments it contains. Pigments are molecules that selectively absorb certain wavelengths of light. Dark pigments contain certain metals or organic compounds that can absorb light across the visible spectrum.

For example, black pigment is produced using carbon particles. Carbon can absorb light across the entire visible region and appears black. White objects contain pigments that reflect all visible wavelengths well.

So dark colored objects contain pigments that are very effective at absorbing the sun’s light across all visible wavelengths. This means they have a lower albedo and heat up more than light colored objects when exposed to sunlight.

Surface Roughness

Surface roughness also affects how much light an object reflects. Smooth surfaces tend to reflect more light than rough surfaces of the same color. Rougher surfaces often appear darker because light reflects off randomly in different directions instead of specular reflection.

For example, unfinished wood appears darker than finished wooden furniture. Worn-out asphalt looks darker than smooth new asphalt. This effect also contributes to dark colors absorbing more light than lighter shades.

Heat Emission

Once an object heats up, it emits energy in the form of infrared radiation. Dark surfaces that have absorbed more sunlight radiate more heat energy compared to lighter surfaces at the same temperature. This further compounds the heating effect.

For example, a black car left in the sun gets hotter than a white car as it absorbs more heat. But it also remains hotter for longer as the absorbed energy is emitted back as infrared radiation.

Real World Examples

Here are some real world examples that demonstrate the heating effects of surface color:

  • People living near the equator have darker skin color to protect against sunburn from stronger sunlight.
  • Dark pavement absorbs more heat, heating up cities compared to natural landscape.
  • Wearing dark clothes in summer makes you feel hotter than wearing light colors.
  • White roofs reflect sunlight and reduce cooling costs compared to traditional black roofs.


There have been many experiments conducted to quantify the heat absorption differences between light and dark colors. Here are the results from some notable studies:

Study Materials Tested Temperature Difference
Levinson et al. 2005 White vs. black roof shingles Up to 5°C
Synnefa et al. 2007 White vs. black roof membranes Up to 16°C
Li et al. 2014 White vs. black fabrics Up to 10°C

These experiments clearly demonstrate that darker surfaces can heat up to 16°C more than white surfaces under the same sunlight exposure. This large difference is caused by the lower albedo of black or dark colored materials.

Radiative Transfer

The interaction between electromagnetic radiation and matter is governed by the principles of radiative transfer. It determines how light is absorbed, transmitted, reflected or emitted by a surface. The albedo and emissivity of a surface are key parameters in these calculations.

Dark surfaces have lower albedo so they absorb more incoming sunlight according to Beer-Lambert’s law. Their higher emissivity also means they radiate more energy according to the Stefan-Boltzmann law once heated up.

Solar Heating Mechanism

The mechanism by which sunlight heats up a surface with a low albedo can be summarized as:

  1. Sunlight across visible and ultraviolet wavelengths strikes the surface.
  2. Pigments in the surface absorb the photons into electronic excited states.
  3. These excited states decay into vibrational energy modes, releasing heat.
  4. The surface warms up through this photothermal process and through conduction.
  5. The heated surface emits infrared radiation according to its temperature.

Dark surfaces have pigments that absorb sunlight more effectively across the entire solar spectrum. This efficient photon-to-heat conversion is why dark colors heat up faster.


In summary, dark colors absorb more heat than light colors because they have a lower albedo or reflectance across the solar spectrum. Their pigments, roughness and high emissivity allow them to absorb more incoming sunlight and also emit more heat radiation. This photothermal heating effect has been verified through various experiments and examples. So wearing light colors in summer makes sense from a physics standpoint!