Additive (adhesives, paints, and plastic)

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In terms of polymers or paints, an additive is a chemical substance, usually in small quantities, that is added to a base material for the purpose of modifying the properties of the end product. Additives change the performance (flexibility, UV resistance, etc.) or appearance (color, opacity, etc.) of the pure polymer. Plastics, adhesives, and paints often contain around 20 additives, most of which are unlisted components because they are considered trade secrets. This in effect conceals any and all toxicity interactions to humans and the environment. A secondary complication is that some of the additives are weakly bound to the polymeric matrix which can lead to separation and/or degradation. The combination of these factors means that additives have to potential to create problems in all stages of a plastics lifecycle, including preparation, handling, lifetime use, and waste disposal.

Examples of additives include:

Additive Type Typical concentration (%) Description Example compounds Comments
Accelerant 0-50 Increases the reaction rate of polymerization and decrease storage life, working life, gel time, etc.; also called Curing agent, Hardener, promoter, accelerator, and vulcanizer (for rubber) Used for polyesters (Styrene), rubbers (sulfur compounds) along with some activators (peroxide, Zinc oxide, amines, Stearic acid, etc.) Incorrect proportions and poor mixing will weaken the polymer structure
Adhesion promoter Increase the strength of an adhesive bond; also called tackifiers, primers Silanes, maleic acid, bis(trimethylsilyl)amine, copper naphthenate, vinyltriethoxysilane, ethylene/acrylic acid May be applied to the substrate or added to the uncured matrix
Antioxidant 0.5-3.0 Inhibits oxidation in order to protect against degradation, especially during processing; major groups are free-radical scavenger or peroxide decomposer Phenols (Bisphenol A), phosphite esters, some thioethers, aromatic amines, Hindered amine light stabilizer, sulfides Almost all plastics contain some type of stabilizer
Antistatic agent 0.1-1 Minimize development of, or dissipate accumulation of, static charge on surfaces; most are applied as coatings; also called stabilizers Quaternary ammonium salts, aliphatic amines, phosphate esters, and ethylene glycols Most types are hydrophilic and may attract moisture or migrate to water
Biocide 0.001-1 Designed to destroy, deter, or control degradation from harmful organisms; also called antimicrobial Generally poisonous substances including Preservatives, Insecticide, Fungicide, Herbicide, Bactericide and Disinfectant; such as arsenic compounds, Phenylmercuric acetate (discontinued), organic tin compounds (Tributyl tin oxide), Formalin, Alcohol, phenolics, isothiazolinones; triclosan; chlorinated nitrogen sulfur heterocycles and 10,10' oxybisphenoarsine Present in small amounts but quite toxic
Blowing agent Used to create open spaces in polymers and metals; also called foaming agent Carbon dioxide, Nitrogen, Pentane, azodicarbonamide, isocyanate, benzene disulphonyl hydrazide, Microballoon The foaming process in irreversible in most solids
Colorant 0.001- 10 Used to give color or opacity Any Dye or Pigment including azocolorants, cobalt diacetate, Cd, Cr and Pb compounds, zinc sulfide, Zinc oxide, iron oxide, Ultramarine, Titanium dioxide, Al and Cu metallic powders Fluorescent materials and dyes may migrate whereas inorganic compounds usually do not
Dispersant Aids in the separation and suspension of small particles in a bulk medium; also call surfactant and emulsifier Paints may include borates, silicates, polyphosphates, and polyacrylates; anionic Surfactants used in soaps and detergents include organic sulfates and phosphates and salt of carboxylic acids; nonionic surfactants (Emulsifiers) used in latex paints are ethoxylated alkyl alcohols and alkyl phenols. Some have a tendency to produce foam
Filler 0-50 Used to change the mechanical and optical properties, while producing a less expensive product; also called bulking agents Talc, Kaolin, Chalk, Barium sulfate, Microballoons, Glass fiber, Carbon black, Carbon fiber, Acrylic resin, Starch, Titanium dioxide, metal powder, wood powder, silicious earth. Most polymers contain fillers. High levels can protect against UV rays.
Flame retardant 1-30 Used to minimize burning Most commonly used are brominated and chlorinated paraffins, then Aluminum hydroxide, Antimony trioxide and various Organophosphates Non-chlorinated organophosphates are safer but do not work as well. Chlorinated and brominated flame retardants have been or are being phased out due to toxicity.
Heat stabilizer 0.3-5 Minimizes degradation due to heat exposure; also called thermal stabilizer Formerly derivatives of Lead, Tin and Cadmium were used. Alternatives are barium/zinc mixtures and Calcium stearates Primarily used in PVC which is prone to thermal degradation
Impact modifier 10-40 Improved toughness and resistance to damage Usually an elastomeric copolymer such as Butadiene, Styrene, etc. Chlorinated polyethylene is used for PVC
Light stabilizer 0.05-3 Protects against UV damage by absorbing or quenching UV rays; also called UV absorber and quencher Hindered amine light stabilizer or HALS is often used in polyolefins, polyethylenes, and polyurethane; other types include UV blockers (such as Benzotriazole) and quenchers (usually a dye). Normally only used in products designed for outdoor use
Lubricant 0.1-3 Used to assist in the process of forming/molding plastic; also called Release agents and slip agents PFASs (hazardous), Paraffin wax, wax ester, metal stearates (Zinc stearate, etc.), fatty acid amides (oleamide, erucamide, etc.)
Plasticizer 10-70 Provide flexibility, durability and stretchability while reducing melt flow Phthalates are most common, followed by adipate ester, citrate ester, and chlorinated paraffins PVCs use the most plasticizers followed by cellulose acetate. Phthalates leach out with time and are considered carcinogenic
Siccative A substance that catalyzes the drying of oil-based paints, alkyd paints, varnishes and inks; also called drier or drying agent Usually metallic salts of organic acids (e.g., cobalt linoleate, cobalt oleate, and cobalt naphthenate), but organic salts of most heavy metals are effective; some pigments also act as driers, such as Lead oxide and Manganese oxide Heavy metal compounds are toxic; excess driers cause surface skinning
Sizing A glaze or filler applied to or mixed into paper pulp or cloth to decrease porosity, as well as add luster or weight, and increase stiffness; also called size. Rosin, Glue, Gelatin, Casein, gums, Starch, synthetic resins (Polyvinyl alcohol, Polystyrene, Polyacrylic acid and Polyvinyl acetate), and modified cellulose. Some sizing materials are water soluble
Thickening agent 0.2-2.0 Used to increase the viscosity of a liquid; also called thickener, gelling agent, anti-sag agent Starch, Gum, Casein, Gelatin, Agar, Carboxymethyl cellulose, Polyvinyl alcohol, polyacrylate, polyurethane, styrene/butadiene, acrylic polymers, Clay, Bentonite, silicates, Fumed silica.

Synonyms and Related Terms

additives (pl.); modifier; admixture; Additive (Deut.); additif (Fr.); aditivo (Port.)

Resources and Citations

  • John N. Hahladakis, Costas A. Velis, Roland Weber, Eleni Iacovidou, Phil Purnell, 'An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling, Journal of Hazardous Materials, V.344 (2018). link
  • Monona Rossol, 'Water-Based Latex Paints' in handout for NYCOSH webinar on paints, 2019.
  • Theodore J. Reinhart, 'Glossary of Terms', '2019 NYCOSH webinar on paints handout, Engineered Plastics, ASM International, 1988
  • ASTM, "Standard Terminology Relating to Paint, Varnish, Lacquer and Related Products", Annual Book of ASTM Standards, Section 6, Paints, Related Coatings and Aromatics, ASTM, D16, 7-Jan, Jul-96
  • Matt Roberts, Don Etherington, Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: a Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1982
  • Art and Architecture Thesaurus Online,, J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles, 2000
  • Wikipedia: (Accessed Feb. 2, 2006)
  • Wikipedia: |Plastic Additives (Accessed June 2023)

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