What is the Difference Between Polycarbonate and Acrylic?

Top choices between clear or near clear plastics, acrylic plexiglass sheet and polycarbonate panel are often considered as solutions for a broad range of optical applications. How do they compare?

Both Acrylic and Polycarbonate are half the weight of comparably sized glass by volume. For what you lose in weight, you gain in strength with either product. Both are synthetic glass, and each offers tremendous flexibility.

They also have a number of differing characteristics. These two types of plastics are oftentimes compared to one another because they are similar in appearance and the most frequently utilized see-through plastic materials on the market. Both have benefits and drawbacks. Generally speaking, acrylic sheeting is shinier and polycarbonate sheet is stronger. Acrylic and polycarbonate both weigh less than half of what a comparably sized piece of glass weighs yet they are both much stronger than glass. Both materials are also very easy to clean.

Acrylic Plastic

Acrylic is mostly known as the trademark name Plexiglas® or Perspex®. In particular, "Plexiglas" is used almost interchangeably with "acrylic plastic". While each trademark product may have slightly different characteristics, they each form acrylic plastic.

Polycarbonate Plastic

Polycarbonate is sometimes called Lexan® or Makrolon®. One of the biggest differences between acrylic and polycarbonate is the cost. Polycarbonate sheets can cost on average about 35% more than acrylic.

Acrylic plastic properties include:

Less expensive than glass and polycarbonate
17x the impact resistance of glass
92% light transmittance in all thicknesses (better clarity than glass)
Insusceptible to yellowing or discolouration from the sun
Thermoplastic with a working temp of 180F continuous
Durable against scratches and dents
Sheets can be polished smooth
Easy to cut
Heat bent
Clean glue joints
Shiny surface
A large variety of colours available
Widths from 48" to 108"
Lengths from 72" to 192"

Polycarbonate plastic properties include:

  • 250x the impact resistance of glass and 30x stronger than acrylic
  • Bullet resistant grades are available
  • 88% light transmittance
  • Less rigid and available in a variety of flexible grades
  • Thermoplastic with a working temp of 240F continuous
  • Low level of flammability
  • Durable against chips and cracks
  • Highly resistant to acids and other chemicals such as gasoline
  • Sheets can be drilled without the worry of cracking
  • Cold-formed or bent without heating
  • Widths from 38" to 75"
  • Lengths from 78" to 150"

Acrylic may be more resistant than glass, but polycarbonate is 30 times more resistant than acrylic. Available in bulletproof grades, polycarbonate has obvious applications for security which makes it popular for use in banks and retail. Police riot shields are also made from polycarbonate.

Polycarbonate’s ability to withstand heat also makes it an excellent choice for greenhouse glass and roofing panels. And its superior strength makes it the go-to material for outdoor signage, security barriers and machine guards. Available as coloured or clear sheet plastic, other benefits of this versatile product include:

  • Flexible enough to be shaped at room temperature
  • Good chemical resistance
  • Non-flammable and can be exposed to high temperatures
  • Ideal for insulation
  • Can be drilled without cracking
  • Lighter in weight than glass