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Acrylic Plastic vs. Polycarbonate: What’s the Difference?


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Did you know that acrylic plastic and polycarbonate, two widely used plastics, are two of the most widely used materials in manufacturing, with a combined market value of over $30 billion? These versatile materials have distinct properties that make them suitable for various applications, from signage to protective eyewear. Understanding the differences between acrylic plastic and polycarbonate is crucial for anyone looking to choose the right material for their specific needs.

In this post, we’ll delve into the unique characteristics of these materials, exploring their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their diverse applications. Whether you’re a DIY enthusiast or a professional in the manufacturing industry, knowing how these materials differ can help you make informed decisions about which one best suits your project requirements.

Polycarbonate material sheet
Polycarbonate material sheet

Material Properties of Acrylic vs. Polycarbonate

Optical Clarity

Acrylic is a transparent thermoplastic that is well-known for its excellent optical clarity. This means that when you look through acrylic, it’s very clear and easy to see through. Imagine looking through a pair of eyeglasses with crystal-clear lenses – that’s similar to how clear acrylic is. On the other hand, polycarbonate also offers good transparency, but it may not be as optically clear as acrylic. If you were comparing the two materials side by side in terms of optical clarity, acrylic would likely come out on top.

Acrylic’s excellent optical clarity makes it an ideal choice for applications where visibility or aesthetics are important, such as in aquariums, picture frames, or even car headlight covers.

UV Resistance

One key difference between these two materials lies in their UV resistance properties. Acrylic has better UV resistance compared to polycarbonate. This means that when exposed to sunlight or outdoor conditions over time, acrylic is less likely to yellow or become brittle compared to polycarbonate.

For example, if you were considering using one of these materials for an outdoor sign or a skylight panel on a roof, the superior UV resistance of acrylic would make it the better choice because it can withstand prolonged exposure to sunlight without degrading as quickly as polycarbonate might.

Comparing Strength and Durability


Polycarbonate outperforms acrylic in terms of strength, being significantly stronger and more impact-resistant. This means that polycarbonate is less likely to break or shatter upon impact compared to acrylic. For instance, if you were to drop a polycarbonate sheet and an acrylic sheet from the same height, the polycarbonate one would be less likely to crack.

Acrylic, on the other hand, may not withstand heavy impacts as well as polycarbonate due to its lower tensile strength. It’s important to consider this difference when choosing between these materials for applications where durability is crucial.

Resistance to Abrasion

. Polycarbonate exhibits higher resistance against scratching compared to acrylic. This makes it suitable for use in environments where there’s a high chance of surface damage due to rubbing or scraping.

In contrast, while acrylic can still maintain good clarity after many years of use, it is more prone to scratching than polycarbonate. If your application involves frequent contact with abrasive materials or surfaces, you might want to opt for polycarbonate instead.

Visibility and Temperature Tolerance Differences

Optical Clarity

Acrylic offers exceptional optical clarity with minimal distortion, making it ideal for applications requiring high visibility. This means that when you look through acrylic, things appear very clear and sharp. For instance, if you use acrylic for a display case or picture frame, the items inside will be seen without any visual interference. On the other hand, polycarbonate has slightly lower optical clarity compared to acrylic. It might have some slight distortion when looking through it due to its chemical composition.

Polycarbonate maintains its impact resistance even at low temperatures because of its molecular structure. However, this can lead to a bit of compromise in terms of optical quality compared to acrylic.

Temperature Tolerance

Both materials have different capabilities. Acrylic can withstand temperatures up to 180°F (82°C). This makes it suitable for various indoor applications where the temperature is controlled and doesn’t reach extreme levels. For example, using acrylic for indoor signage or protective barriers would be an excellent choice due to its temperature tolerance.

On the other hand, polycarbonate can handle higher temperatures than acrylic; it remains stable at up to 240°F (115°C). Because of this higher heat resistance capability, polycarbonate is often used in outdoor settings where exposure to direct sunlight and fluctuating temperatures is common – think about greenhouse panels or outdoor signs that need durability against varying weather conditions.

Machining Acrylic and Polycarbonate

Ease of Machining

Acrylic is simpler to machine compared to polycarbonate. It can be easily drilled, cut, and shaped using regular tools found in most workshops. This makes it a popular choice for DIY projects or small-scale manufacturing where simple machining processes are involved.

On the other hand, polycarbonate demands specialized machining techniques due to its toughness and tendency to melt under high-speed cutting. This means that working with polycarbonate requires more advanced equipment and expertise, making it less accessible for amateur machinists or small businesses without the necessary resources.

Both materials have their advantages. While acrylic offers ease of use for basic operations, polycarbonate’s strength and durability make it suitable for applications requiring more robust components.

Polishing Capabilities

In terms of finishing touches, both acrylic and polycarbonate can be polished to achieve a smooth finish. However, the process may differ slightly between the two materials.

For acrylic, polishing involves removing any imperfections on the surface by using abrasives before finishing off with a polishing compound. This results in a clear and glossy appearance that enhances its visual appeal.

While it can also be polished similarly to acrylic, its higher resistance against impacts means that achieving a perfectly smooth finish might require additional effort. The material’s toughness often leads manufacturers towards utilizing specialized methods such as flame polishing or chemical vapor polishing to attain the desired level of clarity.

Applications of Acrylic and Polycarbonate

Common Applications

Acrylic plastic is widely used in signage, display cases, lighting fixtures, and architectural applications. It’s also commonly employed for greenhouse glazing, skylights, and protective barriers. On the other hand, polycarbonate finds its applications in safety goggles, bulletproof windows, automotive parts, and electronic components. Like acrylic plastic, polycarbonate is also suitable for greenhouse glazing, skylights, and protective barriers.

Acrylic is often chosen for its clarity and UV resistance when used in signage or display cases. Its ability to be easily molded into various shapes makes it a popular choice for lighting fixtures as well as architectural elements like decorative panels. Meanwhile, polycarbonate, known for its exceptional strength and impact resistance compared to acrylic, is preferred in safety goggles due to its ability to withstand high-impact forces without shattering.

Both materials are favored options for greenhouse glazing due to their lightweight nature while providing adequate protection from the elements. They are also utilized in skylights because of their durability against weathering effects such as hail or heavy rain.

Versatility in Glazing

In terms of glazing applications, acrylic offers excellent optical clarity similar to silicate glass but at half the weight with improved impact resistance. This makes it an ideal choice for areas where both aesthetics and durability are crucial such as commercial buildings’ window replacements or bus shelters’ panels.

On the other hand, polycarbonate, with its superior impact resistance compared to acrylic, becomes a top pick when considering safety features such as bulletproof windows or security barriers that require maximum protection against forced entry attempts.

acrylic material sheet
acrylic material sheet

Environmental Impact and Recyclability

Acrylic’s Recyclability

Acrylic is recyclable but not as widely accepted in recycling programs as polycarbonate. It can be recycled into new products, but the process is not as common.

Acrylic has a lower environmental impact compared to traditional materials like glass. Its recyclability makes it an environmentally friendly choice for various applications, such as windows and enclosures.

Polycarbonate Recycling Processes

Polycarbonate can be recycled into new products through various processes, making it more versatile in terms of recycling. This material’s high impact resistance makes it suitable for reuse in different ways.

Both acrylic and polycarbonate have a lower environmental impact than traditional materials like glass, reducing their overall carbon footprint.

Cost Analysis of Acrylic Plastic versus Polycarbonate


Acrylic is generally more affordable than polycarbonate, making it a cost-effective option for many applications. For instance, if you’re looking to replace windows in your home or office, using acrylic could be a budget-friendly choice. The lower cost of acrylic makes it an attractive option for projects with tight budgets.

On the other hand, polycarbonate’s higher price is justified by its superior impact resistance and durability. This material is often used in applications where strength and resilience are crucial, such as bullet-resistant windows or safety goggles. While polycarbonate may come with a higher initial investment, its long-term durability can make it a cost-effective choice for specific uses.

Application Considerations:

When evaluating the cost-effectiveness of each material, the specific application and required properties should be carefully considered. For example, if you need to construct a greenhouse or create outdoor signage that requires protection from UV rays, acrylic might be the more economical option due to its lower cost and adequate weather resistance.

However, if you’re working on a project that demands high-impact resistance and toughness – like manufacturing machine guards or constructing vandal-proof bus shelters – investing in polycarbonate could prove to be more financially sensible over time due to reduced maintenance costs and longer lifespan.

acrylic plastic VS polycarbonate

Acrylic PlasticPolycarbonate
Less impact resistantMore impact resistant
More brittleMore flexible
Lower melting pointHigher melting point
Lower costHigher cost
Less UV resistantMore UV resistant

Guidelines for Choosing Between Acrylic and Polycarbonate

Impact Resistance

When choosing between acrylic plastic and polycarbonate, it’s crucial to consider the level of impact resistance required for the application. Polycarbonate offers higher impact resistance than acrylic, making it suitable for applications where durability is paramount, such as in safety shields, machine guards, or bullet-resistant windows. On the other hand, if the application involves minimal risk of impact damage, acrylic may suffice due to its lower impact strength.

Optical Clarity and Visibility

Another important consideration is the need for optical clarity and visibility. If your project requires exceptional transparency and superior light transmission, then acrylic might be more suitable due to its excellent optical clarity. For instance, display cases or protective barriers in museums often utilize acrylic due to its ability to showcase items with minimal distortion.

Temperature Range

Assessing the temperature range in which the material will be used is essential. While both materials offer good temperature resistance, it’s important to note that polycarbonate has a higher heat deflection temperature compared to acrylic, making it more suitable for applications exposed to high temperatures without significant deformation.

Machining Requirements

Factor in the machining requirements and tools available when deciding between these two materials. While both can be machined using similar tools like saws or routers, working with polycarbonate might require extra care due to its tendency to melt under certain cutting conditions.

Budget Constraints and Cost-Effectiveness

Consideration of budget constraints and overall cost-effectiveness plays a vital role in decision-making. In general, while both materials have their own advantages, polymer polycarbonates are typically more expensive than acrylics, so budget considerations could influence your choice significantly.

Industry or Regulatory Requirements

Lastly but importantly take into account any specific industry or regulatory requirements that may govern your choice between these two materials. Some industries may have strict regulations regarding material properties such as fire retardancy or chemical resistance—factors that could sway your decision towards one material over another based on compliance needs.

Closing Thoughts

You’ve now seen the stark differences between acrylic and polycarbonate, from their material properties to their environmental impact. It’s crucial to consider factors like strength, visibility, and application requirements. Remember, while acrylic may offer better clarity, polycarbonate takes the lead in durability. Your choice ultimately depends on what matters most for your specific project or application.

As you weigh your options, keep in mind that understanding the distinct characteristics of these materials is key to making an informed decision. Whether it’s for a DIY project or industrial use, the right choice between acrylic and polycarbonate can make all the difference in the outcome. So, take your time to assess your needs and make a choice that aligns with your priorities.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main differences in material properties between acrylic and polycarbonate plastics?

Acrylic is rigid, transparent, and prone to scratching, while polycarbonate is impact-resistant, flexible, and has better heat resistance. Acrylic offers clarity but lacks the strength of polycarbonate.

Which applications are suitable for acrylic over polycarbonate?

Acrylic is ideal for indoor applications like signage, display cases, and aquariums due to its optical clarity. It’s also used in furniture and decorative items where impact resistance isn’t crucial.

In what scenarios should I choose polycarbonate, an alternative plastic, instead of acrylic, another plastic?

Opt for polycarbonate when durability against impacts or extreme weather conditions is essential. It’s commonly used for safety shields, machine guards, eyewear lenses, and outdoor signs.

How do the costs compare between acrylic plastic and polycarbonate plastics?

Generally, acrylic is more affordable than polycarbonate upfront. However, considering long-term maintenance costs due to breakage or wear-and-tear may alter this cost comparison.

What environmental factors should be considered when choosing between acrylic and polycarbonate plastics?

Both materials can be recycled; however, consider the intended application’s exposure to UV radiation as well as the end-of-life disposal options available for each material.

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About Feilong Acrylic

Feilong Acrylic is a leading manufacturer in China, specializing in providing high-quality acrylic products and comprehensive acrylic project solutions. Our offerings include acrylic displays, acrylic boxes, etc, and related wooden and metal components. We also provide both OEM and ODM services.

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