How Adhesive Tape Works

Turning Sticky into Sticky Tape
Adhesive tape even appears as the occasional fashion statement: For rapper Nelly, pictured on the shoot for music video "Dilemma" in 2002, it was a signature look.
Adhesive tape even appears as the occasional fashion statement: For rapper Nelly, pictured on the shoot for music video "Dilemma" in 2002, it was a signature look.
© Markus Cuff/Corbis

Every time we pull some tape off a roll -- to wrap a present, hang macaroni art, temporarily fix a leaky pipe or seal a package for shipping -- we probably miss the genius of the roll itself. Most notably, why does the adhesive stick to the backing and to the substrate but not to itself?

Were tape not in roll form, it would likely be somewhat difficult to toss in a junk drawer. And "adhesive" that is not adhesive tape is usually glue -- drippy and permanent. It's the tape part that makes the product so neat, so compact and so easy.

The process of making tape is fairly uniform. All adhesive tape has four components [source: ACS].

  • Backing -- The backing is what faces out after you apply the tape, and it doesn't stick to your fingers. Materials vary by application, but mixtures based on plastics, paper or cloth are typical.
  • Primer -- An adhesive primer is applied to the backing to help the adhesive stick evenly and securely to the backing material once applied.
  • Adhesive -- A thin layer of adhesive is sprayed onto the primed backing material.
  • Release coating -- The adhesive is covered by a coat of anti-cohesion material (often polyvinyl carbamate) to keep it from sticking to itself when rolled up.

The layers are applied in large sheets, which are finally rolled up and cut into the 1-, 2- or 3-inch-wide rolls of tape you buy at the store.

The final coating -- the release -- emphasizes an interesting distinction in the world of stickiness: adhesion versus cohesion. In adhesion, one type of molecule is sticking to another type of molecule; in cohesion, one type of molecule is sticking to itself. Tape uses both [source: Scientific American]. The molecules of the adhesive stick to the molecules of the substrate, or adhere, but they also stick to each other, or cohere. If this weren't the case, the adhesive substance wouldn't hold together. The release coating prevents cohesion at the surface of the tape so it can be unrolled easily.

And so, what began as masking tape and some very happy auto painters is now an industry unto itself. Adhesive tapes have wrapped the metal skeletons of blimps to prevent corrosion. They've insulated at least one lunar lander and helped Apollo 11 astronauts carry out some on-the-moon repairs to their lunar module's fender [sources: ACS, NASA]. They hold rearview mirrors onto cars and keep millions of scrapbookers from tearing their hair out when their placement is a millimeter off [source: 3M].

Pressure-sensitive adhesives even give us Post-It notes. It's not running water. But it's close.

Author's Note: How Adhesive Tape Works

In searching for more information about the tape used by NASA to insulate a lunar lander (specially developed for the purpose, with the ability to remain sticky through an enormous temperature range), I also found pictures of the Apollo lander patched together with plain old duct tape, and came across an interesting phenomenon: Conspiracy theorists have decided the presence of duct tape on the Apollo lander confirms the moon landing was a hoax.

It's a probably a common viewpoint, that tools we have lying around the house couldn't possibly be used to get men to the moon. And in this case, it was actually just a quick repair to the lander's fender, which fell off during the mission. But duct tape also played a significant role in getting the ill-fated Apollo 13 astronauts back to Earth, and my point is simply this: I learned in my research that adhesive tape was truly a revolutionary development [source: Universe Today]. By all accounts, there's a reason why New York's Museum of Modern art featured sticky tape in an exhibit called "Humble Masterpieces" and Richard Drew was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In defense of pressure-sensitive adhesives, if the moon landing was faked, duct tape probably isn't proof of it.

Related Articles


  • "Moondust and Duct Tape." NASA Science News. April 21, 2008. (Feb. 20, 2013)
  • Petkewich, Rachel. "Adhesive tape." American Chemical Society. Oct. 15, 2007. (Feb. 6, 2013)
  • "Scotch® Transparent Tape." American Chemical Society (ACS) National Chemical Landmark. Sept. 19, 2007. (Feb. 6, 2013)
  • "The sticky truth about adhesive tape." The Human Touch of Chemistry (THToC). (Feb. 6, 2013)
  • "Surface Energy and Wetting." (Feb. 9, 2013)
  • "Types of Pressure Sensitive Adhesives." ThomasNet. (Feb. 6, 2013)
  • "van der Waals Bonding." HyperPhysics. (Feb. 9, 2013)
  • "van der Waals forces." Encyclopedia Britannica. (Feb. 9, 2013)
  • "What exactly is the physical or chemical process that makes adhesive tape sticky?" Scientific American. (Feb. 6, 2012)

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