What is Styrofoam™?

Styrofoam™ is a trademarked brand of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS), commonly used for thermal insulation and craft applications. Its lightweight and buoyant properties make it a popular choice in various industries. But what impact does its widespread use have on our environment and daily lives? Join us as we examine the implications of this ubiquitous material.
Jessica Hobby
Jessica Hobby

Styrofoam™ Brand Foam is a patented product of the Dow Chemical Company. In 1941, Lab experiments produced polystyrene foam. The Dow Chemical Company was able to patent this technology and gave it its current name. Styrofoam™ is moisture-resistant and unsinkable, which made it an attractive choice to build six-man rafts in 1942 for the United States Coast Guard. The United States Coast Guard and Navy were able to find additional war time applications for Dow’s new product, and even more uses were found in the late '40s.

The term is often used to refer to coffee cups, coolers and packing material. However, these items are only generic foam and none have ever been made from true Styrofoam™. Decades of the word being misused has caused the everyday meaning of the word to refer to these various materials. An important difference is that true Styrofoam™ is light blue in color, where as the other generic types of foam are typically white.

Styrofoam can be used to insulate buildings.
Styrofoam can be used to insulate buildings.

In 1949, Styrofoam™ was used to insulate roofs and later used to insulate the underneath of highways in 1966. The technology that created the foam was continually tested and improved throughout the years. Eventually, it was utilized for insulating foundations in the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dow Chemical Company has continued selling their popular products throughout the world. After the turn of the century, Dow chemical company further improved their product by making it termite-resistant.

Because it is light and durable, Styrofoam is often used as insulation in construction.
Because it is light and durable, Styrofoam is often used as insulation in construction.

In addition to its application in building and wartime, Styrofoam™ is also popular for crafts. There are numerous ways for crafters to work with it, such as cutting, painting, gluing, sanding and sculpting. It is also used for home decor and floral designs. For more intricate projects and designs, the foam can be cut with cookie cutters, curled and used as a base for texture projects.

Styrofoam may be used to insulate both walls and floors.
Styrofoam may be used to insulate both walls and floors.

There are many advantages for home and floral designers and crafters to use Styrofoam™ on their projects and designs. It cuts easily and stays true to shape and size without any gaps or wholes throughout the product. Because the foam is closed cell, it will not absorb any water. It is also lightweight, easy to handle, reusable, and retains it shape even when wet. Another common misconception is that Styrofoam™ is not recyclable. It is true that this foam is not biodegradable; however, it does not contain any chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and it is 100% recyclable.

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Discussion Comments


Styrofoam packaging on food has been a controversial topic for a while, as many feel it adds unnecessary toxins to the things we consume.

If you are eating hot foods on Styrofoam plates and drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups you should be aware that some of that plastic is breaking down and entering your system.

It is believed that over exposure to and ingestion of Styrofoam can be a huge health hazard causing things like cancer, nerve damage and even depression.

It is a good idea to package in paper or reusable containers. It will help you and the environment to stay healthier.


I was quite surprised to learn that Styrofoam was recyclable. The way people talk you would think that it was environmental degradation in a peanut shape.

Actually, I just went and looked it up and apparently most blue box programs don't accept Styrofoam, so in order to get it recycled you either have to personally take it to a facility that processes Styrofoam, or mail it into a specialized recycling center.

I think that this is a lot of hassle for most people so I can imagine that they would be unlikely to actually recycle it. That's really too bad, as Styrofoam is often very bulky. I can only imagine how much room it is taking up in landfills.


@TheGraham - Wow, interesting stuff! I've always wondered this, too. It makes sense that an expanded polystyrene foam like Styrofoam would have a lot of gas trapped inside.

Thanks for explaining about the nail polish I'm going to have to demonstrate this for my son, who is just getting into science. I've been looking for some good basic science projects to do with him, and I think Styrofoam dissolving with nail polish would be a good one, or with spray paint. Thanks!


@Malka - Technically, styrofoam doesn't melt when you add nail polish, because melting involves heat. The effect you are seeing is the styrofoam dissolving.

This dissolving happens because nail polish, as well as a few other kinds of paint like spray paint, and even nail polish remover (the most well known one to use on styrofoam) all contain acetone, which does indeed cause a chemical reaction that dissolves the foam.

The actual chemical reaction going on has to do with how the styrofoam was made. Brand name or not, the substance we think of as styrofoam is polystyrene that has been expanded. That means that some of the styrofoam material is actually gas, which is why it is so lightweight despite its volume.

Anyway, the acetate in nail polish eats up the gas part of styrofoam, leaving just the solid part behind. The actual amount of solids in styrofoam is pretty small -- if you dissolve a bunch of styrofoam and then look at the remains, you will find that there will be a gunky residue left over. That is the solid part without the gas that was eaten up by the acetate.

Phew -- hope that made sense. Simply put, nail polish eats the gas and airy part of styrofoam, leaving only the solid part, which is pretty tiny as it turns out.


Wait, so actual brand-name Styrofoam isn't the same substance we think of when people talk about styrofoam cups, styrofoam packing peanuts, and styrofoam padding in boxed items like new tvs?

I've never seen the actual blue Styrofoam in anything. Now I'm really curious if it's stronger than the stuff I've been thinking of as styrofoam. Since according to the article they used it for six man rafts for the United States Coast Guard, and I can't imagine the stuff packing peanuts are out of holding up to that kind of activity and use, I'm going to assume that the blue stuff is tougher.

Now I want some genuine blue Styrofoam! I like to use the white stuff for making styrofoam props for my college buddies and I to practice sparring with swords without anybody losing an eye.

We break the props constantly; even with a thick layer of duct tape on the surface, they get floppy if the centers break into too many pieces. Real Styrofoam brand foam props would probably hold up a lot better.

Where do you order Styrofoam -- the real kind? Do they have a web site?


@MrMoody - I, too, love packing peanuts! They do a fantastic job of padding glass things that otherwise would have broken to bits over the course of a trip through the mail system.

Shipping typically involves packages being thrown, stacked, heaped on top of each other, dumped into and out of mail bags, and handled by dozens of people before they finally find their way to your hands. What would we do without packing peanuts and other styrofoam products?

I think that styrofoam packing peanuts are superior to bubble wrap, too, because they're recyclable. Not only that, but they're much more reusable.

While bubble wrap may be torn or smashed and lose its usability after one trip through the mail (not to mention getting all of its bubbles popped as a form of stress relief!), packing peanuts are just as usable the tenth time as they are the first time.

That's assuming that you're careful when opening packages so that you don't lose some of the peanuts. They do eventually get a bit squished if used to ship heavy objects a lot, but then you just have to add a small amount of new ones to continue using the old ones.

I actually really wish there were more reusable products as useful as packing peanuts. They're a fine example of making something that is cheap but also lasts.


Ah, styrofoam. As a kid I used to love it when my parents bought new electronics -- not because I wanted new electronics, but because they usually came with styrofoam padding inside the box.

Did you know that styrofoam melts when you put nail polish on it? It's a chemical reaction of some kind; take styrofoam packing pieces and apply drops of nail polish to them in little spots, and it takes effect so fast that you can watch the styrofoam sink inward and be eaten away.

Naturally, as a kid I thought this was awesome and would pretend I had some kind of acid or alien life form that ate away at solid things.

Now that I'm an adult and think about it a little more, I'm really curious why nail polish does this to styrofoam. Does anybody know? My best guess is that it's a chemical reaction between some of the ingredients, but maybe nail polish is just acidic enough to melt away at styrofoam but not acidic enough to bother us or our fingernails?

If that was the case I'd imagine that it would be bad to get it on your fingers and skin, though...hmm. If anybody has any idea how nail polish melts styrofoam, do tell!


@nony - At my niece’s school they use geofoam solids for geometric shapes to develop tactile skills and also to teach the kids about basic geometry.

It looks and feels like Styrofoam to me but it’s obviously more useful than simple packing material. It never ceases to amaze me how, every so often, a product comes along that turns out to be a Swiss army knife with so many amazing applications.


@MrMoody - Styrofoam is the brand name for the product, but it has been made into the generic noun which describes the product regardless of who actually makes it.

Now, everything that is made up of expanded polystyrene is called Styrofoam, just like every paper copy is called Xerox and every tissue is called Kleenex and looking up things on the Internet is called Googling.

Yes, Styrofoam has arrived, and is in very good company.


Styrofoam has to be one of those inventions which people instinctively place up there with sliced bread, given Styrofoam’s incredible usefulness and versatility. I never knew about its maritime applications until now, only its everyday use.

One of the most flexible expressions of Styrofoam, however, has to be Styrofoam packing peanuts. Those things can make a big mess when they’re unfurled, although I admit it can be a happy mess if you’re in a frolicking mood.

Because they’re bite-sized they can be shaped to accommodate just about every packing scenario you can dream up. We used them in abundance during our last move.

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    • Styrofoam can be used to insulate buildings.
      By: peuceta
      Styrofoam can be used to insulate buildings.
    • Because it is light and durable, Styrofoam is often used as insulation in construction.
      By: Josef Binsteiner
      Because it is light and durable, Styrofoam is often used as insulation in construction.
    • Styrofoam may be used to insulate both walls and floors.
      By: skatzenberger
      Styrofoam may be used to insulate both walls and floors.