Packaging foam is one of the most versatile and effective means of protecting items during shipping and storage.
There are several major types of packaging foam, each with their own unique properties, benefits, and ideal applications. Choosing the right foam ensures your products arrive safely at their destination.
Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is a very common and affordable type of packaging foam. It consists of pre-expanded polystyrene beads that are steam molded into various shapes. EPS has a distinctive rigid, closed-cell structure that makes it excellent for blocking and bracing applications.
EPS is lightweight yet highly impact-absorbent. It cushions products well against shocks and drops during handling and transit. The beads tightly interlock together to form a durable protective barrier. EPS resists moisture and chemicals, providing goods insulation against temperature extremes.
With its rigidity and moldability, EPS can be shaped into custom inserts and cushions that securely immobilize products inside packaging. Complex 3D forms are possible. EPS is also used to fabricate protective corners, edges, and spacers. Its smooth surface will not scratch polished and delicate items.
For high volume orders, EPS can be inexpensively molded into virtually any design. The main downsides are that standard EPS has relatively low tear and tensile strength. It can be brittle and prone to cracking under heavy loads or repeated impacts. EPS also lacks vibration dampening capabilities.
Common applications for EPS:
- Blocking and bracing for heavy appliances, machinery, furniture
- Edge protectors, corner braces, and spacers
- Formed cushions and inserts for electronics, glassware, ceramics
- Insulated shipping containers for pharmaceuticals, food
- Flotation aids like life vests and rafts
Polyethylene Foam (PE)
Polyethylene foam (PE) has a closed-cell structure that offers superior durability and vibration dampening. It consists of fused closed cells that resist air flow and water penetration. This creates a firm, resilient cushion ideal for protecting fragile goods.
PE foam is available in a wide range of densities, from ultra-soft to extremely rigid. Low density PE works well for delicate wrapping and interleaving. The higher the density, the better it bears loads and absorbs repeated impacts. High density PE can securely immobilize heavy products.
The material’s smooth surface minimizes abrasion damage. PE foam can be fabricated into die-cut pads, rolls, and sheets in just about any thickness. Its excellent chemical resistance suits it for medical device packaging. PE also helps muffle noise and vibrations during transport.
Typical applications for polyethylene foam:
- Cushioning for fragile electronics, glassware, ceramics
- Custom inserts and pads for tools, industrial machinery
- Vibration dampening for sensitive equipment, medical devices
- Structural reinforcement inside crates and cases
- Flotation components for docks, rafts
Polyurethane Foam (PU)
Polyurethane foam (PU) has an open-cell structure that gives it a soft, sponge-like feel. The open cells allow air to freely flow through the material, providing excellent cushioning. PU foam molds well to complex shapes and offers great vibration dampening.
The open-cell nature makes polyurethane foam highly flexible and lightweight. It has good tensile strength and elongation to absorb impacts without immediate bottoming out. PU sheets can be die-cut into an endless variety of pads, rolls, and inserts.
PU is ideal for delicate objects that require gentle, non-abrasive support. Its softness ensures products don’t get scratched or cracked. The material resists mildew and has good long-term resiliency. PU foam is commonly converted into convoluted or “egg crate” die cuts for added shock absorption.
Key applications for polyurethane foam:
- Cushioning for fragile electronics, optics, ceramics, glass
- Custom inserts and pads for computers, servers, medical devices
- Flexible edge, corner, and surface protection
- Vibration dampening for sensitive equipment
- Sound deadening in appliances, machinery
Cross-Linked Polyethylene (XLPE) Foam
Cross-linked polyethylene (XLPE) foam has a very high density closed-cell structure. The polymer chains in XLPE have been chemically cross-linked to enhance strength, resilience, and temperature resistance. The result is an exceptionally impact-resistant cushioning material.
XLPE provides superior vibration dampening and noise insulation. It has excellent dimensional stability and compression set resistance under heavy loads. XLPE foam bounces back to its original thickness after being squashed and flattened repeatedly – a useful trait for heavy-duty long-term packaging.
The closed-cell foam won’t absorb liquids or contaminants. XLPE has good chemical compatibility and a high service temperature range. It offers outstanding protection for polished class “A” surfaces thanks to its non-abrasive smooth texture. The high-end luxurious feel also suits XLPE for presentation packaging.
XLPE applications include:
- Cushioning for fragile medical supplies, electronics
- Structural protection for sensitive optics, laboratory equipment
- Blocking and bracing large heavy appliances and machinery
- Long-term storage and shipping cases for precision instruments
- Edge and corner protection for furniture, glass, ceramics
Expanded Polypropylene (EPP) Foam
Expanded polypropylene (EPP) is a closed-cell bead foam that provides exceptional cushioning performance coupled with light weight. EPP consists of discrete foam beads that interlock together, resulting in over 90% air content. This gives the material outstanding shock absorption and energy dissipation under impact.
Despite being lightweight, EPP has very good rigidity and compression strength. The closed cell structure resists water and chemical ingress. EPP combines high-strength with minimal weight – an essential property for automotive and aerospace applications needing impact management.
EPP is an excellent sustainable packaging option. It has superior vibration dampening at half the density of other foams. EPP is also 100% recyclable and contains no CFCs or other ozone depleting substances.
Key attributes and uses for EPP foam:
- Extremely lightweight, rigid cushioning material
- Highly impact and puncture resistant
- Excellent vibration dampening at lower thicknesses
- Food-safe and non-abrasive closed cell foam
- Sustainable and fully recyclable packaging
- Reusable custom inserts and pads for electronics, medical devices
Anti-static foam, also called ESD foam, is a packaging material treated with anti-static compounds. It protects electronics and static-sensitive devices by preventing buildup of static electricity that can damage circuits and components.
The foam contains metallic salts and conductive carbon black particles that dissipate electrostatic charges away from the packaged products. This prevents damage from electrostatic discharge (ESD) during handling and storage.
Anti-static foam is most commonly based on open-cell polyurethane or polyethylene foams. The open-cell structure allows charges to quickly diffuse through the foam. Using anti-static foam greatly reduces electronic failures caused by ESD.
Typical uses for anti-static foam:
- Protective packaging for electronics – circuit boards, semiconductors, chips, processors
- Cushioning for hard drives, server racks, integrated circuits
- Device trays, custom inserts, and pads for disks, memory, cards
- Medical equipment packaging – monitors, scanners, imagers
- Automotive electronic control module protection
Charcoal foam is a packaging material with a black conductive carbon additive that provides anti-static properties. The charcoal color also hides dirt and scuff marks, keeping packaged products looking clean and professional.
The open-cell structure absorbs static charges, protecting electronics from ESD damage. At the same time, the black foam color masks fingerprints and surface soiling. Charcoal foam combines ESD protection with an aesthetic light-blocking effect.
For packaging items that will be constantly handled and inspected, the charcoal color retains a “like new” appearance much longer than white foam. Charcoal foam sheets are commonly used to line carrying cases, shipping crates, and presentation packaging.
Typical charcoal foam applications include:
- Electronics – cushions, pads, inserts for gear that gets handled frequently
- Optics and lenses – blocks light while protecting from ESD
- Diagnostic and lab equipment – masks scuffs while absorbing static
- Presentation cases – retains professional clean look after repeated use
- Photo and video gear – light blocking accentuates products on display
Convoluted “Egg Crate” Foam
Convoluted or “egg crate” foam has a distinct peaked and pitted surface rather than a flat profile. The hills and valleys provide air space that increases shock absorption and vibration dampening. This makes egg crate foam an excellent protective packaging material or cushioning for irregular shaped objects.
Convoluted foam is commonly made from polyurethane, polyethylene, or latex. The convolutions improve air circulation and dissipate heat for electronics and other temperature-sensitive products. The peaks also reduce surface area contact for class “A” finishes susceptible to scratches.
Many configurations are possible – inverted pyramids, rounded cones, diamond grids, etc. The geometry increases rigidity and puncture resistance as well. Egg crate foam is often used to line the tops of packaging crates and cases. It stacks efficiently for storage and transport.
Popular uses for egg crate foam:
- Electronics – lines cases, improves air circulation and cooling
- Irregular shaped objects – wraps securely while minimizing contact area
- Stackable crates and storage bins – protects contents from shifting and bumps
- Point of purchase displays – accentuates products, absorbs vibration
- Photography and optics – protects gear from bumps and scratches
Expanded Rubber Foam
Expanded rubber foam provides excellent impact absorption and vibration isolation. It consists of open-cell latex foam rubber processed to retain good resilience and tensile strength. The material can compress and spring back to its original thickness repeatedly.
The open-cell rubber structure and high air content offer effective cushioning against blows, jolts, and drops. Expanded rubber foam effectively isolates equipment from noise and vibrations sources like engines and heavy machinery. It also insulates against extreme temperatures.
Thanks to its vibration dampening traits, expanded rubber foam sees heavy usage insulating sensitive electronics, optical instruments, and lab equipment. It protects fragile components from the rigors of transportation and everyday use. The sponge-like material conforms closely to irregular shapes.
Common uses for expanded rubber foam:
- Isolation mounts for microscopes, imaging systems, sensors
- Anti-vibration pads for speakers, stereo gear, subwoofers
- Electronic component trays and custom inserts
- Medical diagnostic equipment packaging
- Noise and vibration dampening in appliances, machinery
Neoprene foam is a synthetic closed-cell rubber known for its exceptional versatility. It offers good chemical resistance, weathering properties, and flame retardancy. Neoprene provides excellent insulation against heat and cold.
The closed-cell structure doesn’t absorb moisture or contaminants. Neoprene has outstanding vibration isolation characteristics, making it well-suited for packaging noise-sensitive electronics and instrumentation. It protects equipment from jolts, impacts, and loading forces during handling and transportation.
Neoprene’s excellent compression set resistance allows it to repeatedly absorb shocks without losing thickness or resilience. It will bounce back to its original form over thousands of cycles. Neoprene foam can be die cut into custom gaskets, vibration mounts, and protective pads.
Key traits and typical uses for neoprene foam:
- Noise, vibration, harshness (NVH) isolation for electronics
- Gaskets, seals for equipment enclosures and cases
- Durable, long-lasting padding for medical devices
- Temperature insulation for food transport and pharmaceuticals
- Flame-retardant padding for aerospace and automotive components
Polyimide foam provides outstanding thermal insulation together with mechanical resilience. It consists of a open-cell polyimide polymer matrix that incorporates glass microspheres for low thermal conductivity. The material offers thermal stability up to 572°F.
In packaging applications, polyimide foam gives excellent protection against heat damage. It insulates electronics and heat-sensitive products from high temperatures during storage and transit. The foam won’t melt, drip, or give off noxious fumes when exposed to high heat.
Despite being a lightweight foam, polyimide foam has good compression strength and vibration dampening. Parts don’t get crushed or cracked during handling and shipping. Polyimide foam conforms well to complex geometries, making customized die-cuts straightforward.
Key attributes of polyimide foam:
- Extreme high temperature insulation up to 572°F
- Good vibration dampening and mechanical strength
- Low thermal conductivity for outstanding insulation
- Highly conformable and easily fabricated into custom pads
- Inert, non-outgassing material compatible with aerospace composites
Melamine foam is a lightweight, open-cell foam with outstanding flame resistant properties. It is manufactured from melamine resin, which chars but does not easily ignite. Melamine foam meets stringent fire safety standards for transportation and construction.
For packaging applications, melamine foam provides an inexpensive flame retardant cushioning material. It absorbs minimal water, so it performs well in humid conditions. Melamine foam has reasonably good shock absorption and vibration dampening characteristics.
Melamine foam is commonly fabricated into acoustic foam panels that absorb sound while meeting flammability codes for auditoriums and theaters. Packaged goods can withstand the elevated temperatures encountered during shipping and warehousing with melamine foam cushioning.
Notable attributes of melamine foam:
- Highly flame resistant and self-extinguishing
- Low smoke and toxic gas emissions when burned
- Good sound absorption combined with fire safety
- Inexpensive acoustic and packaging foam
- Withstands humidity and elevated temperatures
What packaging foam provides the best protection?
It depends on the product. For light, fragile items, low density polyurethane or polyethylene foams offer good basic cushioning. For heavy equipment, higher density cross-linked polyethylene provides excellent impact resistance.
What packaging foam is cheapest?
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is generally the most affordable protective packaging foam. It provides good blocking at a low cost, especially for high volume applications where custom molds can be utilized.
What packaging foam is best for electronics?
Anti-static polyurethane or polyethylene foam protects electronics from electrostatic discharge during shipping and storage. For vibration dampening, neoprene or expanded rubber work well.
Is all packaging foam recyclable?
Most are recyclable, including polyethylene, polyurethane, expanded polypropylene (EPP), and expanded polystyrene (EPS). Thermoset foams like polyisocyanurate are more difficult to recycle.
Can you reuse packaging foam?
If kept protected in good condition, polyethylene and polyurethane foam sheets can potentially be reused a few times. Convoluted and pick-and-pluck foams are also reusable to a degree. However, foam does degrade over time.
How thick should packaging foam be?
It depends on the product’s weight. As a general guideline for static loads, use 1/4″ foam for items under 10 lbs, 1/2″ for 10-25 lbs, 3/4″ for 25-50 lbs, and 1″ foam or more for over 50 lbs. Double the thickness for items that will endure impacts or drops.
Protective packaging foam cushions valuable products from damage during handling and shipping. The right foam blocks shocks, isolates vibrations, and immobilizes items from movement inside boxes and cases.
With so many types available, consider product weight, fragility, surface finishes, temperature factors, flammability standards, and required foam thickness when selecting the optimal material.