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Home Articles Surface Energy and Labels: The Unscientific Guide

Surface Energy and Labels: The Unscientific Guide

Updated 11/06/2020
Surface energy and its effect on labels

Why is it that labels stick differently to different surfaces? This question has more to do with the destination's surface than the label or its adhesive. Whether the adhesive bonds with destination surface depends on the amount of surface energy that material possess. Learn more about surface energy and how you can ensure your labels stay stuck.

What is surface energy?

Comparison of high surface energy surfaces versus low surface energy surfaces The adhesion process with high (left) and low (right) surface energy materials.

In the words of Peter Eyland, a distinguished physics instructor, "surfaces have energy associated with them because work is needed to form them. Surface energy is the work per unit area done by the force that creates the new surface."

As it relates to labels, surface energy is the degree to which the adhesive and the material's surface repel or attract. High surface energy values attract whereas low surface energy values repel. A material with a surface energy higher than that of the adhesive is an ideal situation. In general, materials with higher values bond better because good wet-out occurs. Wet-out is an industry term to describe the flow of an adhesive over the destination's surface. Good wet-out ensures maximum contact and helps achieve strong bonding. This is why higher surface energy objects are less challenging for labels to adhere to.

Surface energy is measured in dynes per centimeter (dyn/cm).

Determining your packaging's surface energy

Water on high surface energy surface Water on low surface energy surface How water reacts to high (left) and low (right) surface energy materials.

Pouring water on your surface is an easy way to test its surface energy. In this test, water is representative of the adhesive. Once you've applied water to your material, take notice of how the water reacts. If it pools, it means the water is more attracted to the surface than it is to itself. This means your surface has high surface energy. If it beads, the water is more attracted to itself than the destination, i.e. your material has low surface energy. If you're having trouble picturing this, consider pouring water on aluminum (840 dyn/cm) vs. a Teflon® pan (18 dyn/cm). Water on aluminum pools whereas water on Teflon® beads.

Common high surface energy materials

For the purposes of this article, materials are considered to have high surface energy if they have more than 40 dyn/cm.

Material dyn/cm
Copper 1,103
Stainless Steel 700-1,000
Aluminum 840
Zinc 753
Tin 526
Glass 250-500
Nylon 46
Polyester (PET) 43
ABS Plastic 42
Polycarbonate 42

Data from UPM Raflatac

How to pick a label for high surface energy materials

All of our label materials have an adhesive capable of creating a long-lasting bond with high surface energy materials. Therefore, there is no need to invest in a special strength adhesive. However, if the label is likely to come into contact with liquids or moisture, we recommend you use any of our weatherproof/waterproof label products.

Get tips on how to choose an adhesive.

Common low surface energy materials

For the purposes of this article, materials are considered to have low surface energy if they have less than 40 dynes/cm.

Material dyn/cm
PVC 39
Acrylic 38
Polyethylene (PE) 31
Polypropylene (PP) 29
PTFE Flouropolymer (Teflon®) 18

Data from UPM Raflatac

How to pick a label for low surface energy materials

Our aggressive matt white labels as well as all of our weatherproof labels are suitable for low surface energy materials. They possess a stronger adhesive and are more suitable for hard-to-stick materials. Note that while the adhesive of our aggressive matt white labels is more powerful, if your label is being used in moisture-rich or wet environments, our waterproof labels are your best option.

Understanding label surface energy is just the first step to better adhesion. Get better results from your labels with our high-quality materials in sheets or rolls. Learn more about our aggressive matt white for high surface energy objects, find the perfect match for low surface energy objects with our extensive list of standard label materials, or browse our weatherproof / waterproof labels for everything in between.

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