Iron filings that have oriented in the magnetic field produced by a bar magnet


A magnet (from Greek magnḗtis líthos, "Magnesian stone") is a material or object that produces a magnetic field. This magnetic field is invisible but is responsible for the most notable property of a magnet: a force that pulls on other ferromagnetic materials, such as iron, and attracts or repels other magnets.

A permanent magnet is an object made from a material that is magnetized and creates its own persistent magnetic field. An everyday example is a refrigerator magnet used to hold notes on a refrigerator door. Materials that can be magnetized, which are also the ones that are strongly attracted to a magnet, are called ferromagnetic (or ferrimagnetic). These include iron, nickel, cobalt, some alloys of rare earth metals, and some naturally occurring minerals such as lodestone. Although ferromagnetic (and ferrimagnetic) materials are the only ones attracted to a magnet strongly enough to be commonly considered magnetic, all other substances respond weakly to a magnetic field, by one of several other types of magnetism.

Ferromagnetic materials can be divided into magnetically "soft" materials like annealed iron, which can be magnetized but do not tend to stay magnetized, and magnetically "hard" materials, which do. Permanent magnets are made from "hard" ferromagnetic materials such as alnico and ferrite that are subjected to special processing in a powerful magnetic field during manufacture, to align their internal microcrystalline structure, making them very hard[citation needed] to demagnetize. To demagnetize a saturated magnet, a certain magnetic field must be applied, and this threshold depends on coercivity of the respective material. "Hard" materials have high coercivity, whereas "soft" materials have low coercivity.

An electromagnet is made from a coil of wire that acts as a magnet when an electric current passes through it but stops being a magnet when the current stops. Often, the coil is wrapped around a core of "soft" ferromagnetic material such as steel, which greatly enhances the magnetic field produced by the coil.

The overall strength of a magnet is measured by its magnetic moment or, alternatively, the total magnetic flux it produces. The local strength of magnetism in a material is measured by its magnetization.

Medical issues and safety[]

Because human tissues have a very low level of susceptibility to static magnetic fields, there is little mainstream scientific evidence showing a health effect associated with exposure to static fields. Dynamic magnetic fields may be a different issue, however; correlations between electromagnetic radiation and cancer rates have been postulated due to demographic correlations [1][2].

If a ferromagnetic foreign body is present in human tissue, an external magnetic field interacting with it can pose a serious safety risk.[3]

A different type of indirect magnetic health risk exists involving pacemakers. If a pacemaker has been embedded in a patient's chest (usually for the purpose of monitoring and regulating the heart for steady electrically induced cardiac cycle, care should be taken to keep it away from magnetic fields. It is for this reason that a patient with the device installed cannot be tested with the use of a magnetic resonance imaging device.

Children sometimes swallow small magnets from toys, and this can be hazardous if two or more magnets are swallowed, as the magnets can pinch or puncture internal tissues; one death has been reported.[4]

Magnetic imaging devices (e.g. MRI's) generate enormous magnetic fields, and therefore rooms intended to hold them exclude ferrous metals. Bringing objects made of ferrous metals (such as oxygen canisters) into such a room creates a severe safety risk, as those objects may be powerfully thrown about by the intense magnetic fields.


  1. What are electromagnetic fields?, World Health Organization
  2. "Standard for Safety Level with Respect to Human Exposure to Radio Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, 3KHz to 300GHz". IEEE Std (IEEE). C95.1-2005. October 2005.
  3. Schenck JF (2000). "Safety of strong, static magnetic fields". J Magn Reson Imaging 12 (1): 2–19. doi:10.1002/1522-2586(200007)12:1<2::AID-JMRI2>3.0.CO;2-V. PMID 10931560.
  4. Oestreich AE (2008). "Worldwide survey of damage from swallowing multiple magnets". Pediatr Radiol 39 (2): 142–7. doi:10.1007/s00247-008-1059-7. PMID 19020871.