Polycarbonate vs. Acrylic: Material Differences and Comparisons
Learn more about polycarbonate and acrylic in manufacturing.
Polycarbonate and acrylic are both clear plastics used as replacements for glass in many industrial and consumer product applications. Due to the materials’ transparency, polycarbonate and acrylic are most frequently used as flat, clear sheets in windows, viewing panels, protective barriers, and eyewear, as well as in clear display and merchandising cabinets.
Acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate, or PMMA) is cheaper than polycarbonate. It is more transparent and has a high-gloss finish. Acrylic can be used as a safe, lightweight alternative to glass in applications where better optical properties are the most important consideration. Polycarbonate has a higher level of impact resistance and is more resistant to chemicals compared to acrylic.
Polycarbonate and acrylic look and feel very similar. It can be difficult to tell the two materials apart with the naked eye. In choosing between polycarbonate and acrylic, a number of factors need to be taken into consideration, depending on your application and requirements. This article will discuss the differences between polycarbonate and acrylic in terms of properties, applications, cost, and alternatives.
Polycarbonate (PC) is a thermoplastic polymer material. It is amorphous, which means it has a low degree of crystallinity and is composed of randomly oriented polymer chains. Its chemical structure gives a unique blend of physical and optical characteristics which are useful for many applications. Amorphous materials like polycarbonate have a lower level of absorption of photons. More energy is needed to excite electrons between energy levels. This allows the majority of light to pass through the material, leading to the material appearing transparent.
Polycarbonate is particularly transparent relative to commonly used plastics (for example PET, HDPE, PS) and has a transparency equivalent to silicate glass. Polycarbonate is known for its high impact resistance (250 times the impact resistance of glass). It is therefore commonly manufactured into flat panels and used in protective barriers and windows. Some common applications of polycarbonate are bullet-proof glass, window and ceiling panels, and displays and enclosures. Although polycarbonate has high impact resistance, it has low scratch resistance.
One useful characteristic of polycarbonate is its ability to undergo extreme plastic deformation, while not cracking or breaking. This characteristic has led to polycarbonate being manufactured in a similar way to sheet metal such as: rolling, press brakes, heating, and hot-line forming.
Using these processes, polycarbonate can be fabricated quickly and cheaply into shapes that could never be created using silicate glass. Polycarbonate can also be fabricated using injection molding, pressed into sheets of varying thickness, and easily machined and drilled. For more information, see our guide on What is PC Material.
Acrylic (short for polymethyl methacrylate, or PMMA) comes in many forms. It can be fabricated as glue, paint, or fiber. In this article, we are referring to the commonly used industrial and engineering sheet material, acrylic glass. Acrylic is manufactured under some well-known brand names, such as Plexiglas®, Perspex®, and Lucite®.
Like polycarbonate, acrylic is an amorphous thermoplastic material. It is even more transparent than polycarbonate and glass. It has very high toughness when compared to silicate glass (17 times the impact resistance), although not as high as polycarbonate (250 times the impact resistance of glass). Compared to polycarbonate, acrylic has a higher tensile strength and UV resistance. Acrylic is less expensive than polycarbonate and is commonly used as a suitable alternative when impact resistance is not a key factor. Acrylic also has a higher degree of transparency than polycarbonate and is used when clarity and optical characteristics are critical.
Acrylic products can be seen in applications such as: shop displays, display enclosures, ceiling skylights, media discs, and optic fiber applications, due to their flexibility and transparency. For more information, see our guide on Everything You Need To Know About Acrylic.
Figure 1 are examples of acrylic sheets:
Multiple colors of acrylic sheets.
Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/baitong333
Both polycarbonate and acrylic are transparent thermoplastic polymers that are available as a sheet, rod, tube, and film. They are most commonly used as lightweight replacements for glass in retail and manufacturing. Both have higher impact resistance and tensile strength than glass and are safer and less likely to break or shatter. Polycarbonate and acrylic share many applications. They can be used interchangeably in many situations. Below is a list of applications in which either polycarbonate or acrylic may be used:
- Window panels and ceiling skylights.
- Safety barriers around industrial workstations, windows in kiosks, and bus and train driver enclosures.
- Safety goggles, safety glasses, lenses for microscopes, telescopes, and eyepieces.
- Electronics, media storage, CDs, and Blu-Ray disks.
Acrylic is less expensive than polycarbonate and has a higher gloss finish. It lends itself to everyday use, compared with the more niche industrial applications of polycarbonate (for example: bullet-proof glass, aerospace components, and electronics). Examples of acrylic in everyday use include:
- Retail store displays, cosmetics holders, and merchandising.
- Lamp shades and floor lamp components, chandeliers, light boxes, and displays
- Toys, ornaments, and arts and crafts.
- Food and drink containers.
Polycarbonate has a much higher impact and chemical resistance than acrylic. It is more commonly used in industrial and engineering applications where polycarbonate’s higher impact resistance, chemical resistance, and machinability is worth the higher material cost (relative to acrylic). Polycarbonate’s ease of processing and ability to be bent into shape gives it some advantages over acrylic in some applications. These include:
- Bullet-proof and shock-proof windows and barriers, industrial safety guards for machines, and bus shelters.
- Clear display stands and document holders (for example, holding signs, menus or wall-mounted notices), Covid-19 barriers, enclosures, and partitions in offices.
- Molds and trays for resin casting, and clear containers for holding chemicals.
- Mobile phone covers and consumer electronic components.
- Automotive, aerospace, and nautical applications where clarity and strength are required.
Table 1 below gives a comparison between the physical properties of polycarbonate and acrylic:
Tensile Strength (Ultimate) (MPa)
Heat Deflection Temperature (°C)
Hardness (Rockwell M)
Fair - Degrades over time unless coated (up to 10% reduction in transparency)
Very Good - inherent UV resistance (<3% degradation after 10 years)
Strong resistance to many common chemicals including acids, salt, organic grease/oil, and alcohols. Degrades in contact with methyl alcohol, acetone and many hydrocarbons, and alkaline solutions. Can be cleaned with common detergents, including ammonia.
Poor resistant to salt. Degrades in contact with acids, alkalines, ethanol, and other undiluted alcohols. Can be cleaned with soapy water or acrylic cleaner only.
Both polycarbonate and acrylic are thermoplastic polymer materials. This means that both can be recycled and re-processed in different ways. Polycarbonate and acrylic can be ground up, pelletized, and used to create new materials. When properly recycled, these materials can be remelted and molded many times, although the quality decreases each time. Eventually, these materials can be shredded and used in packaging and as fillers for other plastics.
In terms of sustainability, the manufacture of both polycarbonate and acrylic requires much less heat and energy to produce than an equivalent quantity of glass. Polymer materials are also much easier to recycle than glass, so their energy costs can be spread over many uses throughout their lifetime. Like all plastics, the correct recycling and disposal of these materials are vital to reduce harmful effects on the environment. Neither polycarbonate nor acrylic breaks down over time. When disposed of incorrectly, they can build up in landfills or fragments can make their way into waterways.
One notable consideration is the use of Bisphenol A (BPA) in the manufacture of polycarbonate. BPA has been found to leach from the finished material when soaked in water, or at high temperatures and humidities. BPA is considered potentially harmful, and its use is limited or banned in some countries. BPA is being gradually phased out of use in food and drinking containers.
Polycarbonate and acrylic are relatively inexpensive materials compared to glass or other engineering materials. Polycarbonate is tougher and has better chemical resistance, but it is the more expensive of the two. The average cost per kilogram of polycarbonate sheet is approximately $2.50-3.50. Acrylic has many of the same attributes as polycarbonate (transparency, toughness, tensile strength), and has a high-quality surface finish. It is also less expensive. The average cost per kilogram of acrylic sheet is approximately $1.50-2.00. The difference in cost depends on the product form and grade of the materials. In general, polycarbonate is about twice as expensive as acrylic.
For lightweight and fast-moving consumer goods, polymers that are less expensive than either polycarbonate or acrylic could be considered. Alternative materials include:
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): PET is an inexpensive, translucent polymer that is widely used in the manufacture of water bottles, food containers, and lightweight consumer goods. Although not quite as transparent as polycarbonate or acrylic, it is typically around 80% transparent, which is sufficient for many applications.
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Transparent PVC has been developed and is used in many outdoor applications due to its superior UV resistance. It finds usage in outdoor lighting, windows, and seals.
As polycarbonate and acrylic are regularly used to make glass-like components, glass could be considered as an alternative. But glass is more expensive, more difficult to process, weighs more, and can shatter easily.
This article presented polycarbonate and acrylic, explained what they are, and discussed when to use each material in manufacturing. To learn more about polycarbonate and arcylic, contact a Xometry representative.
Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.
- PLEXIGLAS® is a registered trademark of Röhm, the company owned by the German inventor of PLEXIGLAS®, Otto Röhm.
- PERSPEX® is a trademark of PERSPEX INTERNATIONAL LIMITED.
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