Investigating Liquids: Color Changing Milk

Sara Theis and Jen Jenks, Red Oak Elementary School, Shakopee, MN, based on an original activity from Steve Spangler Science.
Initial Publication Date: August 3, 2009


In this chemistry lab, the students will investigate what happens to the liquids: milk and food coloring, when dish soap is placed on a Q-tip and then put into the solution.

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Learning Goals

This activity is designed for students to hypothesize what will happen to the liquids in the solution when dish soap is added. Students will conduct the experiment and then reflect if their hypothesis was correct. After the experiment, students will be asked to write a response as to why the liquids reacted in the way that they did. A group discussion will then take place. The key concept students will learn is that the weak chemical bonds that hold the proteins in the milk are altered when the dish soap is added. The molecules of fat and proteins bend, roll, and twist in all directions causing the food coloring to react and look like exploding fireworks. Vocabulary for this activity include: fats, proteins, and chemical bonds.

Context for Use

2nd-3rd Grade, class size of 20-30 students, elementary school classroom setting. This is a lab that will take approximately 30 minutes from start to finish, experiment, written response, and class discussion.

Description and Teaching Materials

Color Changing Milk

It's an explosion of color! Some very unusual things happen when you mix a little milk, food coloring, and a drop of liquid soap. Use the experiment to amaze your friends and uncover the scientific secrets of soap.
- Milk (whole or 2%)
- Dinner plate
- Food coloring (red, yellow, green, blue)
- Dish-washing soap (Dawn brand works well)
- Cotton swabs
1. Pour enough milk in the dinner plate to completely cover the bottom and allow it to settle.

2. Add one drop of each of the four colors of food coloring - red, yellow, blue, and green - to the milk. Keep the drops close together in the center of the plate of milk.

3. Find a clean cotton swab for the next part of the experiment. Predict what will happen when you touch the tip of the cotton swab to the center of the milk. It's important not to stir the mix just touch it with the tip of the cotton swab.

4. Place a drop of liquid dish soap (the Dawn brand works well) on the tip of the cotton swab. Place the soapy end of the cotton swab back in the middle of the milk and hold it there for 10 to 15 seconds. Look at that burst of color! It's like the 4th of July in a bowl of milk: mini-explosions of color.

5. Add another drop of soap to the tip to the cotton swab and try it again. Experiment with placing the cotton swab at different places in the milk. Notice that the colors in the milk continue to move even when the cotton swab is removed. What makes the food coloring in the milk move?

How does it work?
Milk is mostly water but it also contains vitamins, minerals, proteins, and tiny droplets of fat suspended in solution. Fats and proteins are sensitive to changes in the surrounding solution (the milk).

When you add soap, the weak chemical bonds that hold the proteins in solution are altered. It's a free for all! The molecules of protein and fat bend, roll, twist, and contort in all directions. The food color molecules are bumped and shoved everywhere, providing an easy way to observe all the invisible activity. At the same time, soap molecules combine to form a micelle, or cluster of soap molecules. These micelles distribute the fat in the milk.

This rapidly mixing fat and soap causes swirling and churning where a micelle meets a fat droplet. When there are micelles and fat droplets everywhere the motion stops, but not until after you've enjoyed the show!

There's another reason the colors explode the way they do. Since milk is mostly water, it has surface tension like water. The drops of food coloring floating on the surface tend to stay put. Liquid soap wrecks the surface tension by breaking the cohesive bonds between water molecules and allowing the colors to zing throughout the milk. What a party!

Repeat the experiment using water in place of milk. Will you get the same eruption of color? Why or why not? What kind of milk produces the best swirling of color: skim, 1%, 2%, or whole milk? Why?

Variations to this experiment:
Instead of putting dish soap on the tip of the Q-tip, use other liquids such as vinegar, water, rubbing alcohol, or a type of soda pop.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teachers make sure when you are adding the food coloring to drop the colors slowly so that they make small drops. This is an activity that we have not used in the past with students. We think this will really get them thinking about how different liquids interact with others.


There is no formal assessment for this activity. It is meant to introduce the unit on solids, liquids and gasses. The informal assessment will be the class discussion afterwards.


Physical Science- Matter- physical properties of materials can be changed, but not all materials respond the same way to what is done to them.

References and Resources