For every standard material, there’s always an alternative.
Polycarbonate or acrylic sheets are often substituted for traditional glass.
Considered “plastic glass,” both are a suitable substitute for many regular glass applications and offer improved security and public safety. You’ve probably talked about both materials by their brand names. Polycarbonate sheets are often referred to as “Lexan,” and acrylic as “Plexiglass.”
Both materials, however, are not entirely interchangeable with each other. There are several key factors to consider when evaluating polycarbonate vs acrylic for your commercial project.
Breaking Down Polycarbonate vs Acrylic
To select the appropriate glass alternative, you should first understand the basic framework of polycarbonates vs acrylics.
At face value, polycarbonate and acrylic sheets appear to be the same. They’re both clear. They’re available in different thicknesses and lengths. And they can both be manufactured into specific shapes.
On a technical level, acrylics and polycarbonates are closely related, as they’re both members of the thermoplastics family. However, differences in their chemical compositions and manufacturing make for some stark contrasts.
Polycarbonate vs Acrylic: 7 Factors to Consider
When considering one material over the other, here are 7 key factors to evaluate:
- Surface damage resistance
- Durability against the elements
Put up against each other, polycarbonate is stronger than acrylic. Less rigid and able to withstand temperature changes without breaking, polycarbonate sheets are ideal for some of the toughest jobs -- even providing protection against bullets.
While one is stronger and more durable than the other, both acrylic and polycarbonate sheets are stronger than standard glass. Compared to traditional glass, polycarbonate sheets are up to 250x stronger, while acrylic is only 17x.
This one is pretty simple.
Compared to traditional glass, acrylic and polycarbonate sheets weigh about 50% less. When put against each other, acrylic and polycarbonate sheets with the same dimensions don’t tip the scale in one direction or the other.
To the naked eye, polycarbonate and acrylic both appear to boast the same clarity for glass alternatives for windows.
Upon closer inspection, polycarbonate does have a slight tint to it. When exposed to sunlight over long periods of time, that tint does eventually turn yellow. And it’s impossible to restore the material to its original clarity.
Though only slightly clearer, acrylic does outshine polycarbonates on the appearance front in a few ways. Acrylic is a shinier material and can be polished to maintain its sheen. Should its transparency dull, you can also polish acrylic to restore its original appearance. In addition, an experienced fabricator is able to grind the edges of acrylic pieces to be almost visually nonexistent.
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4. Surface Damage Resistance
In this category, one material isn’t better than the other. It comes down to the intended use and the type of surface-level damage each is susceptible to.
Polycarbonate sheets are more likely to fall victim to scratches that can’t be buffed out. On the other hand, acrylics are more apt to chip or even crack when subjected to strong impacts.
5. Durability Against the Elements
For indoor use, both materials stand up to whatever their intended uses are. It’s when the elements enter the equation that things become tricky.
When installed outdoors, acrylic sheets fare better against exposure to the sun. Because of acrylic’s chemical composition, it’s resistant to UV rays and doesn’t warp or discolor as easily. Polycarbonate sheets, however, need additional protection from the sun’s rays -- usually a thin layer of a UV ray-resistant coating is applied to both sides of the material. As we mentioned, they’ll also yellow after prolonged exposure to the sun.
Polycarbonate sheets, however, stand up to the cold much better than acrylic. As a stronger material, polycarbonate sheets do not become as brittle and are less likely to crack.
In comparing polycarbonate vs. acrylic, polycarbonate sheets are easier to work with -- but not in the sense you might think.
Because polycarbonate sheets are stronger, they are better suited for fabrication than acrylics. Whether cut, drilled, or shaped, polycarbonate is less likely to break, though it does take more effort and skill to fabricate.
Acrylic’s comparative weakness, however, does make the material easier to form. In simplest terms, acrylic sheets won’t lose integrity or strength after being heated and molded into a shape.
In comparing polycarbonate vs. acrylic cost, the latter is the cheaper alternative.
Because of its strength, durability, and the extra effort required during fabrication, polycarbonate costs more. Those factors contributing to its higher cost make it a better long-term investment.
Though easier to work with, acrylic is more prone to breaking. It’s a cheaper alternative to glass that is easier on your wallet to replace.
Applications for Both Glass Alternatives
Because of their similarities, polycarbonates and acrylics can be used for the same jobs, such as windows, partitions, and sneeze guards.
As the stronger of the two glass alternatives, polycarbonate sheets are ideal for:
- Bulletproof windows
- Windshields on outdoor equipment, e.g., four-wheelers, tractors, logging machinery
- Windows for sound dampening and thermal protection
- Additional protection from blunt impacts, e.g. coverings for glass windows at businesses
While still tough and easier to form, acrylics are a suitable glass alternative for:
- Display cases
- Picture frames
- Face shields
Selecting Polycarbonate vs. Acrylic for Your Project
Though not the same as glass, polycarbonate and acrylic sheets do the same jobs and offer enhanced strength and protection.
In considering which glass alternative is proper for your project, evaluate these seven factors with your intended use to make the best selection possible.
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(Editor's note: This article was originally published in December 2020 and was recently updated.)