This low-mess creative science experiment uses permanent markers and rubbing alcohol to make colorful designs that mimic tie-dye.
- Colorful permanent markers (ex. Sharpies)
- Cotton items to decorate (ex. t-shirts, socks, dish towels, or shoelaces)
- Rubbing alcohol (also known as isopropyl alcohol) *Read warning labels. Parental supervision is required for this project since rubbing alcohol is poisonous if swallowed. Do this experiment outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Do not expose your artwork to heat until it is completely dry, since rubbing alcohol and its fumes are flammable.
- Rubber bands
- An eye dropper or small syringe
- Containers (ex. plastic cups or glass jars)
What to Do
Step 1: Help your child stretch cotton item chosen to decorate, over the mouth of a jar or cup and secure it with a rubber band or two.
Step 2: Let your child use permanent markers to make several dime-sized dots of different colors on the stretched cotton.
Step 3: Fill an eyedropper or syringe with rubbing alcohol, and help your young artist drip rubbing alcohol onto the spots of color until the alcohol starts to soak outward, carrying the ink with it.
Step 4: Repeat on different areas of the cotton item your child is decorating, until the design is complete.
Step 5: Allow the dyed cotton item to dry overnight. When completely dry, hang it in the sun, or put it in the dryer for 15 minutes to set the color. Wash separately from other clothes, to prevent staining!
Enrichment: What happens if you draw lines, concentric circles, or different shapes on your designs? Can you layer colors and watch them separate? What if you add rubbing alcohol next to the color, instead of directly on it? How many drops of alcohol do you have to add to a dime-sized color spot before it starts to expand?
The Science Behind the Fun
Permanent marker ink doesn’t dissolve in water, but special chemicals called solvents can break it down.
Rubbing alcohol is one of these solvents. In this project, when you drip alcohol on the cloth, it dissolves the colorful ink and carries it through the fabric. Some ink colors move faster than others, so inks that contain more than one color separate out into multiple hues.
The alcohol eventually evaporates into the air, leaving the ink designs behind in the fabric.
Note: This experiment was created by Bob Becker, a chemistry teacher at Kirkwood High School in Kirkwood, Missouri.
You can find more experiments like this one at kitchenpantryscientist.com, and in my books Kitchen Science Lab for Kids (Quarry Books) and Outdoor Science Lab for Kids (Quarry Books).
Featured Photos Credit: Liz Heinecke