What Happens if You Shake a Lava Lamp


Lava lamps are famous decorative lamps. Interestingly, they’re not heated by electricity but heated up through an oil or wax mixture. This kind of lamp simulates a volcano’s lava that spews out and flows down through the crater into the sea or ocean. 

What Happens if You Shake a Lava Lamp

More than 30 years ago, it was made as a children’s toy for fun & entertainment. But now, it is widely used at home, offices, shops, etc. I will discuss “what happens if you shake a lava lamp” in this article. So let us get started.

How is A Lava Lamp Prepared?

The lava lamp is not your typical desk toy. It doesn’t have anything to do with volcanoes, despite its name. It’s a two-part device consisting of a glass reservoir and colored oil. The pool contains water and floating marbles, while the water is topped off by oil dyed in various colors. The oil looks like liquid wax, but it’s not sticky at all.

If you look at a still lava lamp for long enough, you might see tiny bubbles forming on the surface and large bubbles rising from under the “lava.” These are indications of a chemical reaction happening inside this gadget that changes your run-of-the-mill household oil into an exotic fluid called an “emulsion.”

An excellent way to define an emulsion is by comparison with another kind of fluid that doesn’t contain any oil. Imagine a bunch of marbles floating in the water. What happens to those marbles if you add some food coloring into the water (say, green dye)? Nothing! They’re made out of the same stuff as the water around them — they’ll sit at the bottom of your container without doing anything unusual. But suppose you replace the marbling with tiny beads of oil and add green dye into it.

In that case, things get much more interesting. Instead of dropping straight down through the “water,” each bead will spread out from one another and disperse across the entire volume of the solution, keeping their original green color. This results from tiny oil molecules that are inter-mixed with water-loving each other more than they like water — and vice versa for water molecules. The mixing process is called emulsification. The resulting liquid has been “emulsified.”

What Happens if You Shake a Lava Lamp?

When a lava lamp is shaken, the fluid inside becomes agitated and appears to be boiling. However, in reality, the fluid does not burn; it only seems to do so because of convection currents. Ordinary lava lamps are constructed with water-based waxes (hence the term “lava”) that lack any dissolved gases or liquids—no matter how the light shakes and swishes,” air bubbles will remain trapped in their still liquid core as long as they are well below its glass surface.

Lava Lamps Constructed With Water-based Wax

Lava lamps can even be inverted while they’re on, and no gas/fluid will bubble out. However, if a lava lamp is inverted, you’ll notice that its colored wax float slowly settles toward the bottom and comes to rest a few millimeters above the bottom of the lamp. 

This is because lava lamps are filled at their bases with colored wax and mineral oil  (the latter to prevent evaporation) with denser pigment levels than those found in the middle or top areas of a lava lamp. So, if you were to channel your inner Archimedes and determine which portion of a filled-up lava lamp has the highest pigment concentration (and thus weight), it would be its base resin/wax–not any other area.

Due to gravity’s pull these heavier liquids will tend to settle towards the bottom while lighter elements rise through them. For this reason, there won’t be any movement in a lava lamp unless it is tipped on its side, and even then, the only movement you’ll get will be in the oil’s surface with air bubbles trapped inside.

How Can I Make My Own Lava Lamp?

There are many ways to make a lava lamp, including the common way with alcohol and water. Here is an experiment to try that uses Borax, warm water, and food coloring.

Use Alcohol and Water

To do this project, you will need:

A bottle or container of some sort, glass is best; clear dishwashing liquid (not detergent); hot tap water; food coloring; matches or lighter; 1/2 cup borax powder.

The Preparation

Put about 12 drops of yellow food coloring in one cup of warm tap water and stir it up well so that the color dissolves completely. Next, slowly add half a cup of Borax powder (do not dump it all at once) while stirring until dissolved completely. Then add another 12 drops of blue food coloring and stir it up well. Pour into the bottle and wait for about five minutes.  The mixture will turn cloudy, and the colors may separate.

Then one can add a few drops of dishwashing liquid (do not overdo it). Shake it up well! Stand back as it will spray out of the bottle. Then you have yourself a lava lamp. This experiment can be used with other food colorings such as red and green if desired.

The Borax makes the water cloudy, and the mixture becomes even more cloudy when you add dishwashing liquid. In fact, the cloudiness is caused by long strings of soap molecules called micelles attracted to oil. Since oil floats on top of the water and there is no oil in this experiment, the result is a bunch of tiny balls.

Borax Makes the Water Cloudy

Next, the warm tap water (and food coloring) mixes with a cold Borax solution, creating those tiny bubbles in the lava lamp base. Some of these bubbles pop when shaken, making it look like they are moving up inside your fake lava lamp! Real lava lamps get their glow from heated metal filaments inside them. If you want to know how true lava lamps work, you can read my earlier article on Making a Lava Lamp.

This is a fun and unique science activity to try. I had some trouble getting the lamp to behave as well as it does in the picture. I suspect that oiling up the bottle or using something other than tap water would make for better results.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Shaking a Lava Lamp Ruin It?

No, shaking a lava lamp does not ruin it. The shaking effect makes the lava lamp so entertaining—the lights inside the lamp flicker and change colors due to the movement.

Can Your Lava Lamp Explode?

No, your lava lamp will not explode. Lava lamps are glass and plastic and do not contain any flammable materials. However, if you drop the lamp, it is possible that the glass or plastic could break and release the gas inside the lamp. If this happens, the gas could cause a fire.

Is It Safe to Sleep With a Lava Lamp on?

There is no definitive answer as to whether or not it is safe to sleep with a lava lamp on. However, some general guidelines can be followed to minimize the risk of injury.

First and foremost, always use caution when handling any hot object. If you are uncomfortable sleeping with a lava lamp on, you can place it in an area where it will not be directly in reach of children or pets.

Additionally, ensure the lava lamp is completely cool before attempting to turn it off. If it becomes too hot to handle, remove the light bulb and let it cool down before trying to turn it off again.

Finally, if you do experience any injuries while using a lava lamp, please consult a doctor immediately.

Ensure the Lava Lamp is Completely Cool

Are Lava Lamps a Fire Risk?

Yes, lava lamps are a fire risk. Lava lamps are made of flammable materials; if they catch fire, they can easily cause a fire.

If you have a lava lamp, it is important to keep it away from open flame or heat sources. If you ever notice your lava lamp starting to smoke or smell like burning plastic, immediately remove it from the area and dispose of it, following local fire safety guidelines.


I hope this article has provided you with all the necessary information on “what happens if you shake a lava lamp.” Thank you, and have a nice day!

You may also read – How to Dispose of Lava Lamps.

Jennifer Branett
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