September 21, 2019 – Even the most careful Star Wars collector or fastidious consumer will eventually discover, to their annoyance, “sticky rubber syndrome.”
That’s the informal name for rubber decomposition, which leaves a sticky, tacky residue on numerous consumer goods.
And it’s not just your expensive lightsaber hilt that is being attacked. The gooey mess can be found on all sorts of items throughout your house: on the sides of your mouse, game controllers, keyboards, can openers, TV remote controls, power tool handles, luggage and camera grips, boots and shoes, and more.
Why Rubber Gets Sticky
Rubber begins its life either as natural rubber from plants or a synthetic compound from petroleum products. Both forms are initially sticky. If you tap open a rubber tree, it emits a syrupy material which is latex – basically rubber particles suspended in water with weak links to each other.
After heating the latex with sulfur and other additives (a process called vulcanization), the polymer chains of the latex join together causing the material to become stretchy and no longer sticky.
Over time, however, the treated rubber reverts back to its original state. Even if you carefully store an item away from sunlight and in a temperature-controlled room, the rubber is likely to fail within several years. The process is called reversion.
By contrast, if you had left your lightsaber outdoors exposed to heat and the sun’s UV rays, the rubber handle would not revert. Instead, it would dry out, crack and flake – what we call “dry rot”.
How to Restore Your Rubberized Product
Why manufacturers still coat plastic-handled products with their flawed rubber formulae, knowing they will eventually fail, is baffling. But the sad truth is that you cannot restore the rubber to its brand-new condition once reversion is observed.
But there is a next-best solution: remove the failing rubber.
In the video below, YouTuber “BooyaJoe!” demonstrates how he successfully removes the sticky rubber coating from his collectible lightsaber handle. He explains that a little rubbing alcohol (70% isopropyl or higher) dabbed on a microfiber cloth – and the use of some elbow grease – can fairly quickly remove the thin rubber coating. Then gently use a plastic scraper or other hard edge to remove the film. Alternate between the alcohol rub and the scraper until you reach the plastic beneath. (Jump to 02:00 to see the cleaning process.)
Another YouTuber, Julian Ilett, demonstrates how he uses inkjet cleaning fluid to remove a rubber coating. He also experiments with WD-40, but concludes that isopropyl alcohol works best because “it dries very quickly and very clean”.
Alternatives That May or May Not Work
● A paste or slurry mix made of baking soda (US) or bicarbonate of soda (UK/Australia) and water – apply with an old toothbrush or scouring pad
● cooking oil or liquid detergent
● WD-40 spray
● methylated spirits (denatured alcohol)
● Goo-B-Gone (might not work)
● In conjunction with one or more of the above, use a clean rag or microfiber towel and watch as the sticky rubber is transferred to the rag. Repeat and use another clean section of the rag. Do not use paper towels, which will leave lint trapped on the sticky rubber.
Finally, if you do not want to remove the failing rubber, you could mask the problem. Some people have tried to sprinkle the tacky parts with baby powder/talcum powder. Others use colored electrical tape. And if you are feeling extra lazy, just wrap the offending parts with cling wrap and call it a day.
DISCLAIMER AND WARNINGS: Do not use pure acetone or nail polish remover, which may melt or damage the underlying plastic or material. Unplug and discharge all electrical products you are handling. Follow all manufacturers’ warnings and directions on proper use of their products. Chemicals noted above should be kept away from unsupervised children. Common sense protection (eye-wear, skin-protection, proper ventilation) should be used where appropriate. Otherwise, proceed at your own risk.