For projects requiring clear see-through plastic, acrylic and polycarbonate are the popular and most obvious choices since they do seem quite like each other. Often chosen to carry out the same tasks, acrylic and polycarbonate have different properties and cost (with polycarbonate sheets being more expensive). Read this overview from plastic experts, The Plastic People, to make the most suitable choice between these clear plastics for your project. Both acrylic and polycarbonate are sold as sheets or as ready cut to the size or shape you need.
Strength – if withstanding damage is important
Both acrylic sheets and polycarbonate sheets have excellent levels of resistance to forceful impacts. Because they are clear plastics, they are often considered as alternatives to glass. Both acrylic and polycarbonate are stronger and lighter than glass and both plastics will withstand an impact that will shatter glass into thousands of shards. Of the two plastics, polycarbonate is strongest – it is around 200 x stronger than glass; acrylic is around 10 stronger than glass. So, if super strength is your requirement polycarbonate sheeting is the better choice. (Though check out what acrylic is often used for in our list below – it may still be strong enough for your project.)
Colour – if choice is important
If you are looking for a plastic with a choice of colours, acrylic sheeting is your option. Acrylic comes in a massive array of colours and textures. The variety includes translucent acrylic, pearlescent acrylic, matt acrylics and high gloss acrylics. Polycarbonate is available in a very limited colour range.
Clarity – if retaining clarity is important
Acrylic provides greater clarity than polycarbonate. At first use the difference is very minimal but over time (and we’re talking around 10 years) polycarbonate may yellow if exposed to the sun. Acrylic can also be polished in a way that polycarbonate cannot and polishing acrylic will regain its clarity – making acrylic sheets a more suitable choice if continued clarity is important.
Drilling and Cutting – if workability is important
Both acrylic and polycarbonate sheets can be cut and drilled.
Polycarbonate is easiest to drill without breakage. In most cases you can drill anywhere on a polycarbonate sheet without any causing any damage. Acrylic is slightly trickier to drill and the closer you drill to the corners, the more likely it is to break.
On the flip side, acrylic is easier to cut than polycarbonate, especially with electrical tools.
While strong options, acrylic and polycarbonate will both scratch. Of the two plastics, acrylic has the advantage in that minor scratching can easily be buffed out. This can be done by hand or with a suitable scratch remover. In any event, with either clear plastic the only cleaning regime should be with warm soapy water and a soft cotton cloth. Abrasive cleaning solutions, chemical cleaners and rough sponges or scourers should be avoided.
In summary, polycarbonate bends and scratches but doesn’t break. Acrylic stays stiff and shiny but cracks and shatters under impact. While polycarbonate is stronger than acrylic, acrylic is still very strong – as you can see by the projects it is used for in our list below.
Common Uses for Acrylic Sheet
- Fish tanks / aquariums
- Retail product displays
- Picture framing
- Museum display cases
- Helicopter windows
- Animal / reptile enclosures
Common Uses for Polycarbonate Sheet
- Race car window
- Riot shields and visors
- Greenhouse glass replacement
- Machine guarding glass