What Happens if You Shake a Lava Lamp


Lava lamps are famous decorative lamps. Interestingly, they’re not heated by electricity, but they heat up through an oil or wax mixture. This kind of lamp is used to simulate a volcano’s lava which 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 has been widely used at home and offices and shops, etc. In this article, I will discuss “what happens if you shake a lava lamp”. So let us get started.

How is A Lava Lamp Prepared?

The lava lamp is a novelty device that, despite how it sounds, has nothing to do with volcanoes. It’s a very cool desk toy that consists of two parts: the glass reservoir and the colored oil inside. The pool contains water and floating marbles, while the water is topped off by oil dyed in various colors, which looks like liquid wax but isn’t 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 that there’s a chemical reaction going on somewhere inside this gadget — one 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 on these heavier liquids, they 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 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 when you add dishwashing liquid, the mixture becomes even more cloudy. 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, though. I suspect that oiling up the bottle or using something other than tap water would make for better results.


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

You may read also – How to Dispose of Lava Lamps

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