Bulbs stop working for a multitude of reasons; this is nothing out of the ordinary.
If you’re anything like me, you probably keep a backup supply of spare bulbs in the cupboard. If not, replacement bulbs are readily available both online and offline.
Switching out an old bulb is a relatively straightforward task. However, with certain bulbs, you have to take extra precautions to avoid touching the bulb with your bare skin.
Does this apply to LEDs?
It’s safe to touch LEDs with your bare hands – even when they’re switched on. LEDs produce light through electroluminescence rather than heat, so they can be handled by the casing.
In this article I’m going to cover:
- Why LEDs are safe to touch
- Whether older incandescent light bulbs can be touched
- Other light bulb types you can and can’t touch
Touching LED Light Bulbs With Fingers
As long as you only touch the bulb casing, you can touch an LED bulb safely. The heat generated by LED bulbs is directed towards the bulb base – so if you unscrewed a light bulb, be careful to only hold it by the casing.
LEDs produce light using a semiconductor chip – positively charged electrons meet with negatively charged electron holes to form photons (light). This process is known as electroluminescence.
It means that, while LEDs do produce heat, it’s not enough to put you at risk when you touch it – and nor does it risk the bulb exploding (more on that shortly).
You should still avoid touching your LED bulb any more than you need to. Simply because, it’s not a toy, and any time you manhandle it, you’re at risk of accidentally dropping and breaking it.
Accidents happen – so minimize the risk.
Are LED Lights Hot To Touch?
If you only touch the glass or plastic casing of your LED light bulbs, they won’t be hot to the touch. They might be very gently warm, but that’s all. If you unscrew an LED bulb and touch the base, that might be hot.
Most of the heat from an LED bulb is generated by the driver – the device which controls the current and steps it down to a safe level for the light emitting diode.
That’s housed in the bulb’s base, which is why heat escapes there.
Bulbs will also typically have a heat sink to direct heat to the base, away from the diode – this is because LEDs work best when cool, so diverting heat helps them to last longer.
Can You Touch Incandescent Bulbs?
You can’t touch incandescent bulbs. When switched on, they get extremely hot, so you can burn your skin. And even when off, you can leave an oily residue which can then be heated when the bulb is on, causing it to explode.
Touching a bulb, or any object for that matter transfers natural oils and contaminates the surface.
This oil is an excellent heat conductor. It creates a temperature imbalance, as the bulb is not evenly heated. The oily area of the bulb is now a lot hotter than the untouched areas of the bulb, becoming a weak spot.
Eventually, this weak spot will blister or crack, allowing air to penetrate the bulb and oxidize the carbon filament. If this happens, there’s likely to be a loud ‘pop’ sound, a flash of light, and the incandescent bulb will stop working.
Sometimes, an oily hotspot will cause the bulb to spontaneously shatter, sending shards of hot glass flying in all directions.
It’s essential to wear vinyl, latex, or rubber gloves when changing or fitting an incandescent bulb. If gloves are not available, you can hold the bulb using a clean paper towel.
Nevertheless, if you accidentally touch an incandescent bulb, remember to clean it with methylated spirit to remove any oily residue.
It’s not an issue for LEDs since the heat isn’t enough to warm those oily fingerprints you’ve left behind.
What Light Bulbs Can You Not Touch?
Any light bulbs that generate a lot of heat shouldn’t be touched – this includes incandescent lights, halogen light bulbs, HID lights, and Xenon lights.
As a quick summary, here’s a look at the lights you can and can’t touch:
|Type of Bulb||Can You Touch It With Your Hands?|
|Fluorescent / CFL||✓ Yes|
A halogen bulb has similar problems to incandescent bulbs – although because halogen gas is used in the bulb, they can burn a lot hotter, meaning quartz is used in the bulb covers.
There’s then the added risk of sweat fusing with the quartz cover of the bulb, which will cause it to melt through a process cause vitrification when heated.
HID and Xenon light bulbs, like you’ll use in car headlights, have similar issues. Handle them with care, using gloves.
Other bulbs, such as CFL and neon, don’t produce the same high levels of thermal radiation and so are typically safer to touch.
Does Touching A Light Bulb Shorten Its Life?
Touching light bulbs that generate heat can shorten their lifespan since you put them at risk of uneven temperatures, causing melting or explosions. Touching LED light bulbs shouldn’t shorten their life.
Can You Touch Halogen Bulbs With Latex Gloves?
Using latex gloves should offer ample protection from natural skin oils and sweat, so you should be safe to touch a halogen bulb. It’s good practice to use latex or vinyl gloves whenever you’re changing a light bulb unless you’ve upgraded to modern LED tech that can tolerate oil and sweat.
Thanks to advancements in technology, changing a light bulb is much easier than it used to be.
Unlike incandescent and halogen bulbs, you don’t need to panic about oily fingerprints from your bare fingers.
Just remember that, especially with a glass bulb, the cover can still be extremely thin and you shouldn’t handle any light bulb recklessly or unnecessarily.
There are still rare cases when an LED bulb could explode though – and while it won’t be because you’ve touched it, it’s still good to read that guide and make sure you’re prepared, just in case.