What is Polyurethane?

Urethane Primer – An Introduction and Glossary of Key Terms

Many of our clients have a specialized interest in the materials we use to manufacture our flexible packaging products. A good example of this is the film and tubing that we use for our roll stock and polyurethane bags. The Urethane Primer provided below explains our manufacturing processes and the properties that make polyurethane such an effective packaging material.

What is urethane?

Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) was discovered in the late 1930s as part of Germany’s World War II research. It is a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), which combines the mechanical and physical properties of rubber with the advantages of thermoplasticity and processability. Other examples of TPEs include polyethylene and polypropylene.

Noted for its high performance and general overall toughness, urethane rapidly became the material of choice for a wide range of critical and “can’t fail” applications. Urethane’s unique characteristics make it an extremely versatile material that outperforms many other thermoplastics. For example, it retains its flexibility even at low temperatures, where polyvinyl chloride (PVC) becomes brittle.

molecule diagram with words urethane linkage, long-chain polybol backbone, small polybol backbone

On a molecular level, urethane is comprised of the four most common elements in the world: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. To be a urethane, it must contain the molecular urethane linkage (NHCO2). The actual chemistry consists of a series of block copolymers with alternating hard and soft phases. A block copolymer is a string of chemically different molecules in repeated sequences. The ratio and molecular structure of these segments determines the specific characteristics of the resin, which can be varied by modifying its chemical backbone.

molecule diagram with words ester group, typical polyester backbone

Depending upon its chemical makeup, the urethane soft phase is generally either Polyether or Polyester. These two categories are further segmented into Aliphatic or Aromatic hard segments.

Polyether urethane provides a softer “feel” or drape than polyester, with better moisture vapor transmission rates and superior low temperature properties. It is also inherently stable when exposed to high humidity, and polyethers are naturally more fungus resistant.

Polyester urethane offers greater toughness (i.e. abrasion resistance, tensile/tear strength) at a given durometer than polyether. It is more resistant to fuels, and offers better aging (oxidation) resistance. However, polyester urethanes will eventually break down when exposed to conditions of high humidity.

Aliphatic urethane is inherently light stable, resistant to ultraviolet light degradation, and provides excellent optical clarity. It is used as an optical interlayer, providing strength as a lamination adhesive in encapsulated glass and security glazing, to name a few applications. It is often a more expensive product.

Aromatic urethane is a strong, general-purpose resin originally developed as synthetic rubber. It is generally less expensive than aliphatic urethanes, but it is susceptible to UV light degradation, which tends to yellow the polymer without affecting physical properties.

Manufacturing Processes

Our Urethane is manufactured by the extrusion process.


diagram of machine that makes flat sheet film with words hopper, screw conveyor, extruder, die, roll stack

Tubing, Cord and Profile

diagram of machine that makes tubing with words tubing die, air inlet, melted material, tubing mandrel, outside diameter, inside diameter, cooling water tank

Blown Film

diagram of machine that makes basic blown film with words basic blown film line, nip rolls, collapsing frame, idler roll, layflat, bubble, roll of film, bubble, resin pellets, air ring, die, hopper, resin pellets, extruder


Polyurethane combines the best properties of rubber and plastic, without the weaknesses inherent in plasticized vinyl films. Because it contains no plasticizers, it is not subject to the brittleness and other problems caused when they leach to the surface. Urethane is easy to work with, and is readily modified to suit a particular application through the addition of fillers, colors, stabilizers, and lubricants, as well as other additives. Urethane compounds possess a combination of properties which are not available in any other thermoplastic material, offering significant design flexibility.

Durometer (Hardness)

Urethane film and sheet can be produced in a range of durometers (Shore A 75 – Shore D 55) from a very stiff material to a very thin film having an extremely soft, non-plastic “feel” or “hand”. The latter is ideal for use in products that come in contact with the skin.

Low Temperature Flexibility

Urethanes feature superior flexibility over a wide durometer range, even at temperatures as low as -60°F.

Tensile Strength

A tensile strength range from 4,000 to 10,000 psi assures reliability and durability over the lifespan of the end product. Because urethanes are tough, they can be used in thinner gauges when compared to vinyl.


Urethane film and sheet can elongate as much as 800% and return to its original dimension without significant loss of “memory.”

Abrasion Resistance

Urethane provides excellent abrasion resistance. For example, it is used in profile form as a conveyor drive belt, and to protect elevator cables and pulleys from excessive wear while cushioning the ride.

Chemical and Environmental Resistance

Excellent resistance to hydrocarbons, chemicals, ozone, bacteria, fungus, and moisture, as well as skin oils. Polyether or polyester urethanes offer specific characteristics that provide durability and long life to products that must survive and perform in harsh industrial environments.

Fabrication versatility

The number of different ways in which urethane can be fabricated enhances its design versatility. It can be cut, sewn, adhesive bonded and laminated to a wide selection of substrates. It can be vacuum formed, radio frequency (RF) sealed, and thermally bonded to itself or other materials. Sheet can be fabricated with urethane tubing to provide the benefits of urethane to an entire product system, such as in linked bladder applications. Urethane may also be printed or silkscreened.

Environmental Impact

Urethane is more environmentally friendly than vinyl and other films. Recently, manufacturers of disposable medical products have begun to use urethane because of the toxic byproducts resulting from incinerating contaminated medical disposables fabricated from PVC. Urethane is also readily recycled, and trim, both from the manufacturing process as well as from our converters and fabricators, can be reground and reused if kept free from contamination.

Typical Applications

Because of its toughness and versatility, as well as a generally higher price tag than other TPEs, urethane is typically used for parts requiring a high level of performance. These applications frequently demand a flexible material with a high degree of flex resistance, wearability, and durability. Particularly at lower temperatures, other materials do not provide this combination of properties.

Some typical applications include:

  • Medical: compression dressings, pressure infuser bags, ergonomic cold packs, transdermal patches, orthodontic bands, shoe insoles, flotation mattresses, tubing
  • Industrial: drive belts, hoses, bellows
  • Other: keyboard covers, flotation devices, headphone ear cushions, buoyancy compensators, packaging of delicate items