What Is Inside a Lava Lamp?

what is inside a lava lamp
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 The majority of us have laid eyes on a lava lamp before, even if it’s just on television or in a magazine. Owing to its fascinating mechanism, many have wondered how they’re made and how they work. If you’ve also asked what is inside a lava lamp, then you’re one of the many who had. Today, we’d answer this question once and for all.

This post will delve deep into the world of these liquid-motion lights to help determine what they’re made of in hopes to spread awareness regarding this product that you’re planning to buy or may already have in your home.

What Is a Lava Lamp?

Lava lamps are designed to be decorative light fixtures in the shape of a tube. They generally contain oily, colored fluid that moves up and down in a seemingly empty structure. One look at it and you’ll know that there are two materials inside: the liquid and something else.

These lamps come in many shapes, sizes, and colors and are designed to look like molten lava, which is how they got their name. The oily substance inside rises and falls within the lamp, changing its shape, breaking up, and then forming again. The psychedelic effect of these lamps has always been fun to watch.

Who Created It?

Craven Walker has always received credit for creating the lava lamp. He was a British engineer who saw a prototype in a pub. The early version was made using a cocktail shaker and a variety of other things. He requested to buy the prototype from the owner and focused on making his own.

Walker then worked hard to build the original version of the lava lamp, which he called Astro Lite. It wasn’t very popular, though. So, Walker took it to a German trade show in 1965, where two American inventors saw it. They bought the rights so that they could manufacture the lamp in the United States. Once created, they changed the name to Lava Lite Lamp.

With the addition of pop art and psychedelic products that came out around the same time, the gimmicky light was a major success. Most people thought the fad would die down, but it never did. By 1990, more than seven million units of these lamps were sold. 

The Design

The “lava” effect you see in these lamps happens because of the interaction between the two fluids used. They’re selected based on their density, as one has to float when mixed in with the other. Sometimes, they’re chosen because of their expansion properties, as well.

This heated fluid can rise and sink faster, which makes the “lava” move up and down in the glass. The heat from the bulb warms that dense liquid on the bottom, making it hotter, which then makes it rise to the top.

As soon as it reaches the top part, it cools off and then floats down to the bottom. Then, it heats back up again, and the process is repeated over and over until the light is turned off.

What Is Inside a Lava Lamp?

You can easily see that the key to making a lava lamp is to select the right fluids. The exact materials used are a proprietary secret, and no one knows what they are. However, one fluid must be water-based, while the other must be oil-based.

The aqua-style part might be plain water. Thus, it can also be mixed with water-soluble solvents, such as alcohol. Other “liquids” can include antifreeze, and sometimes, salt is added to the mixture, as well.

From there, you need an oil-based product. Most people just call it wax, but that’s not necessarily true. The second part needs to fit a variety of criteria for the product to work.

For one, it has to be insoluble in water. It also has to be more viscous and heavier while being non-flammable and non-reactive. Though the manufacturer claims that the contents aren’t toxic, it also mentions not to drink the fluids.

Considerations for Fluid Amounts and Other Designs

No one really knows the formula because it’s kept as a secret. However, the manufacturer doesn’t change the fluid types between lamps, so there have to be considerations for different designs. You’ll find these lights available in many sizes, shapes, and colors.

The original model was the most popular and is still manufactured today. That lava lamp features a gold base with perforated holes to simulate starlight. Its 52-ounce globe is filled with white or red lava and blue or yellow liquid.

There have been a variety of exciting variations over the years, but they aren’t all still made today. For example, there was the Enchantress Planter Lava Lamp, which had plastic flowers in it. The Continental Lava Lite was a non-electric, cordless model and used a candle to heat up the lava.

In the 1970s, there was also the Consort Lava Lite Lamp, which provided a more masculine look and was ideal for dens and studies. Plus, there have been some that are made of wrought iron, and even extremely large lamps that were about 30 inches tall.

what is inside a lava lamp

The Materials Used for the Lamp

As mentioned, no one knows the actual lava lamp ingredients, but we do know that there are many options, which have to be combined to give the liquid inside that lava its flowing effect.

1. Liquid Components

Lava-style lamps are usually made with water mixed with something else, usually isopropyl alcohol. Mineral oil is used for the contrasting liquid. Other ingredients may include cinnamyl alcohol, ethyl salicylate, diethyl phthalate, and benzyl alcohol.

2. Additives

Usually, lava lamps include other additives to ensure that the liquid doesn’t mix or change colors with time. You’ll find many oil- and water-soluble coloring options. Of course, gravity is also a concern for the water-based solution. Therefore, sodium chloride is often added to the water to help make the oil-based product float.

Sometimes, the lava needs help to coalesce, so hydrophobic solvents are added. Turpentine and paint solvents can also be used for fusing properties. Antifreeze is often used, as well, which increases how quickly the lava warms up.

3. Container

Generally, a glass cylinder is used. Some knock-offs might be made with special glass or strong plastic, but they may not work as well. There are multiple “globe” shapes available, though the classic is the hourglass. While you’ll find different heights, 10 inches seems to be standard for lava lamps.

4. The Heat Source

As mentioned, the “lava” inside the lamp must be warmed so that it will move through the water-based liquid. Generally, an incandescent light bulb is used to provide heat. It also offers illumination, though not a lot.

The type of bulb used is critical because the lamp won’t work if the lava is under- or over-heated. Haggerty Enterprises, the American manufacturer of lava lamps, lists a variety of bulb types that are suitable.

Various models may call for different bulbs, but the most common are 40W frosted, 100W reflector with inside frost, and a 7.5W bulb. Sometimes, the 40-watt candelabra bulb is also suitable.

If you’re lucky enough to have or find the version that uses a candle, you’ll probably use a tea light. Obviously, these may be considered dangerous because of the use of open flame, so practice caution.

5. The Hardware

The liquid and the glass tube aren’t the only things that make up a lava lamp. You’ll need the base plate to hold all of the electrical components, as well. There will also be an electrical plug, which is attached to a 16-gauge lamp wire.

Generally, the chamber is sealed with rubber gaskets, as well as screws. Sometimes, lava lamps come with optional equipment. This can include small fans for temperature control and dimmer switches.

How Are Lava Lamps Manufactured?

There are many steps involved in the manufacturing process of lava lamps. Some of them are manual, and others are automated. Of course, no one knows for sure how they are done. Interestingly, Haggerty Enterprises is known to produce up to 10,000 lava lamps each day on their assembly line. How do they do it? Here’s probably how:

Step 1: Container Assembly

The first step in the process is to put the glass cylinder onto the ceramic lamp, forming the base. Then, the appropriate wiring is attached, and the bulb is fitted. Gaskets are then glued on to prevent leakage, and everything is quality checked.

Step 2: Creating the Liquid

Usually, the liquids are mixed up and added to the lamp separately. Isopropyl alcohol is often added to lower gravitational pull so that the oil-based substance floats.

In most cases, 90% alcohol mixed in is too much, and the oil will sink; on the other hand, 70% alcohol mixed in is too light, and the oil will “jump” instead of float. Though no one knows for sure, most people think that it’s about six parts of 90% alcohol to about 13 parts 70% alcohol.

Once the right ratio is achieved, salt, dyes, and everything else are added to the water-based concoction. Waxes and oils are added to the oil-based version. Sometimes, heat is used to melt the wax slightly.

Step 3: Filling of the Lamp

When everything is mixed correctly, the lamps move along the conveyor belt. They’re filled with the oil or wax mixture first, and the water concoction is added next. Usually, about one inch is left for air space so that the hot wax can expand slightly.

Expansion is essential, and the amount of airspace is, as well. This influences how big the blobs or bubbles of lava become. Once it is filled, the cylinder lid is put on and crimped onto the top.

Step 4: Quality Control

Of course, the liquids are checked throughout the creation and filling process to make sure they are mixed correctly. The proper composition and ratio are essential to make sure that the right lava flow is achieved. If there’s an incorrect ratio, the oil and water could mix together, have smaller bubbles, or rise and fall as a single mass.

Once complete, the wiring and connections are also checked. Leaking is also considered, so the seals must be tight. The light bulb is also checked because it has to be centered correctly and tightened.

Sometimes during shipping, the socket or bulb might shift out of place. Instructions that come with the lava lamp tell the owner to push back on the socket gently to center it. You’ll also get a manual that shows you how to change the light bulb.

Some Precautions to Keep in Mind

When you first buy your lava lamp, it is likely that the oil and water might “settle” slightly. This is common. What you do is turn the light on and let it run for four or more hours, so the lava material becomes fluid once more. Other facts to know about are:

1. Don’t touch or ingest the contents.

Many times, people worry about what’s in their products. If you are fearful, you should be aware that the contents of any lava lamp are toxic. Therefore, in case the container breaks, you should not touch the liquids with bare hands or ingest them.

2. Don’t try to make your own

There are methods out there that allow you to make your own lava lamp. While it can be a fun experiment, it isn’t recommended. You may use the wrong ratio of water- or oil-based materials, which could cause significant issues.

For example, if the lava flows too quickly or expands too much, the glass could be damaged or broken. Sometimes, the product won’t work at all, and you’re left with a big blob of wax. In addition, wiring issues may cause a fire in your home or business.

3. Don’t shake it.

The oil used in a lava lamp is like silicone or something similar. Therefore, it is slightly fragile. While it won’t do any damage to the glass, it might stick to itself too much and not separate, and “bubble” lava lamps should.

If you were to overturn the lava lamp or shake it, the water might become cloudy. Though oil and water can’t mix, the oil can spread too much, which means you won’t be able to see what’s inside the lamp at all or not easily.

There are ways to fix a shaken lava lamp, so if this happens to you, there is hope. Just search online tutorials, and you’re good. Try to keep it out of reach of children and on a steady, flat surface.


It’s important to know how things work so that you are better prepared to care for them properly, which is why we talked a great deal about lava lamps here. We also explained the manufacturing process, components, and why they shouldn’t be shaken.

Though it was not easy, we did find out what is inside a lava lamp. The exact blend and materials are proprietary, so it’s unknown. However, we know that it includes both oil- and water-based substances.

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