Daily life 5 min
Plastics appeal to the senses
Plastics and the five senses. Not an unusual subject, as polymers are often involved in enhancing our senses
Plastics appeal to the senses
Plastics appeal to the senses

Polymers are a feast for the eyes

A glance is usually enough to get an idea of the quality, and even the value, of an object. Car manufacturers have long known this. In the 1970s, at a time when polymers (most often polypropylene) were increasingly being used in cars, manufacturers paid little attention to design and even less to the appearance of the plastics used. The most innovative designers sometimes gave them a grained texture to play with light reflections, and some even dared to dye them in the mass to differentiate them from traditional black plastics. Although plastics were initially welcomed for the touch of modernity they brought, they were soon considered as a less valuable material. Manufacturers then sought to make them more glamourous, making them foamed, ultra-smooth, shiny, or seeking to make them imitate the visual aspect of wood or brushed aluminium, simply to please the eyes.


Plastics are particularly popular with car manufacturers, in particular for their ability to enhance vehicle interiors.

Car interiors are still made of polypropylene (PP), but also of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), plastics that can be moulded into any shape imaginable. It should be recalled that the reason why polymers were gradually incorporated into our cars was to reduce their weight and increase performance while consuming less fuel. This was also done for safety purposes, as polymers’ shock absorption properties are unrivalled. Polymers remain the preferred material as they make our vehicles ever safer and cleaner by reducing their CO2 emissions.
Although cars are the first example that springs to mind when talking about the perceived quality of plastics, it is also the case for high-tech (computer and phone shells, etc.) and furniture in particular, and design in general.

Transparent polymers

If there is one polymer that sells itself well, and which also improves a brand’s image, it is PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate). Often transparent, it is frequently used to replace glass as it is much lighter and unbreakable. However, those are not its only sought-after properties. By adding additives, which are closely kept secrets, manufacturers have succeeded in giving the material the most surprising appearances. This polymer can be made in any colour imaginable and can be given a metallic, velvety or smoky appearance. This is one of the reasons why it is found in many shops and in store furnishings. By its very nature, it enhances the objects contained in it or placed on it, as it is very good at “capturing” light.

© Altuglas

PMMA is capable of amazing feats when it comes to playing with light.

French company Altuglas®, the world leader in PMMA, offers surprising products such as the sheet of PMMA that lights up when lit from the side, or the sheet that changes colour when lit up. The latter is preferred by retailers as they know that their clients’ brands will draw the eye at any time of day or night thanks to that added magical luminescent touch.
One of polymers’ greatest feats lies in its ability to harmoniously refract light, and this is one of the reasons that it is so popular among many designers and creators of outdoor furniture and luminescent pots, which are so stunning when illuminated.


Plastics are also extremely easy to mould. This is a blessing for designers as they can rest in the knowledge that manufacturing processes will never be an obstacle to their creativity.
Polymers can play with light and can easily take on all shapes and textures, but that is not the only trick they have up their sleeve to “flatter” the eye. Transparency is another property of some polymers such as polycarbonate, polystyrene, PET and polypropylene which is particularly sought after in packaging. With good reason, because we as consumers like the reassuring feeling of seeing what we are buying.

Plastics reach closer to perfection

Touch is a complex mechanism which involves the brain and the thousands of sensors in the skin. Although just a look will enable us to gather a wealth of information about a product, the sense of touch solidifies our judgment. Once again, plastics offer the greatest variety of textures. The ease with which they can be transformed makes them ideal for creating surprising surface textures, including grainings of varying roughness and depth. They can be “foamed” depending on whether they need to be more or less pliable and elastic under finger pressure, more or less sticky to ensure good grip, with varying degrees of soft touch. All of this is achieved by selecting the right polymer (often thermoplastic elastomers, TPE) and the right additives from a very long list of possibilities. There are many examples of its applications: toothbrush and razor handles, tool handles, tennis racket handles, mountain bike handles, pens, mobile phone cases; and in cars: airbag covers, dashboard elements, gear lever knobs, and more.

In general, TPEs take the form of a skin glued to another polymer whose purpose is to provide the mechanical properties. Various techniques (coextrusion, overmolding, etc.) can be used depending on the chemical affinity of the two materials. For instance, TPEs naturally cling to polyethylene and polypropylene. In fact, the right formula was recently found to enable TPEs to stick to polyamides, which led to vacuum cleaner covers equipped with soft touch handles. They are far from being absolutely necessary, but it makes them all the more attractive and therefore desirable.



Many tools are now fitted with soft touch plastic handles. They are pleasing to the touch and have the added benefit of offering a good grip.

The kings of illusion

With a simple touch, we are able to establish texture (spiky, smooth, rough, etc.), and with a little pressure, consistency (hard, soft, supple, etc.) and of course temperature (hot, warm, cold, etc.). We usually associate those sensations with quality. However, plastics can mislead our senses, as can be seen in certain entry-range vehicles from manufacturers that use plastics with extraordinary psychosensory properties that do not meet the stringent requirements of European tests which must mandatorily be met in order to enter the continent. The opposite is also true, in particular inside airplanes. The polymers used are often neutral, white, and not particularly attractive. However, they were selected specifically because they meet stringent safety standards. For instance, they are designed to produce as little smoke as possible in a fire, thus making an emergency evacuation easier. It is interesting to note that manufacturers refuse to reveal their secrets. These materials are often called hybrid thermoplastic composite materials.

There are currently so many types of polymers that there is something for every taste and every fancy. Better yet, they are found in all industries, and in particular in the textile industry which underwent a veritable revolution with the invention of Nylon®, a polyamide that perfectly mimics the appearance and feel of silk. A silky PMMA is also used in the furniture industry. Finally, let us not forget PVC which so perfectly mimics leather and fur.


Plastics perfectly mimic other materials such as wood and fur. It is impossible to tell them apart, even after touching them!

Polymers as second skin

Plastics are capable of even more spectacular feats. Many research laboratories have taken it upon themselves to create artificial skin using polymers. At Stanford, in the United States, researchers are putting the finishing touches on the development of an artificial skin intended for use in prostheses. It is a plastic sheet (probably an elastomer) fitted with nanosensors made up of pyramid-shaped carbon nanotubes that can transmit a tactile message to nerve cells. The prosthesis wearer thus regains the feeling of touch. Initial tests have been conclusive.

© Skin-on

Skin-On is an artificial silicone skin which reacts when pinched, stroked, etc. When combined with a remote control, for instance, it could lead to fun applications.

However, it is sometimes legitimate to wonder what purpose some discoveries might serve, if any. This is the case of the product developed by French and British researchers who recently created a skin made from moulded silicone into which a grid of electrodes has been inserted. They then covered this with another variety of silicone which mimics human skin. This is not a development intended for the medical industry, but rather one intended to foster a new way of using everyday objects.


For instance, a game controller can be scratched, stroked, pinched or tapped to move a videogame character. Will this very special remote control ever see the light of day? The researchers hope so, and they have already christened this artificial skin Skin-On. All that’s left is to find interesting applications to make it marketable.

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