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A Comprehensive Guide to Reflective Vinyl: Types, Ratings, and Applications

Introduction to Reflective Vinyl

Isn’t reflective vinyl wonderful? Whether it’s sprucing up your vehicle’s graphics, alerting you to an upcoming intersection, or—less ideally—dazzling your eyes while you drive at night, its uses are both aesthetic and practical.

The Science Behind Reflectivity

In scientific terms, the property that makes reflective vinyl so captivating is called “retroreflective.” Most surfaces disperse light rays in all directions. A tiny fraction of this light returns to the original light source. But unlike ordinary reflective surfaces that act like mirrors, retroreflective materials send light rays back to their source, irrespective of the angle of incidence. For simplicity, though, we usually just call it “reflective vinyl.”

Your Color Choices

Although reflective vinyl doesn’t offer as many color options as its more widely-used opaque counterpart, there are still a good number of choices depending on what you intend to use it for.

Beaded vs Prismatic Reflective Vinyl

There are two main categories to consider: beaded and prismatic reflective vinyl. Beaded versions contain small glass beads that function like lenses, directing light back to its source. This type is particularly effective when your eyes and the light source are closely aligned. They are generally more flexible and easier to work with than prismatic versions.

Prismatic reflective vinyl, conversely, features tiny pyramid-shaped structures in the material. Think of Pink Floyd’s iconic “The Dark Side of the Moon” album cover for a visual reference. This type of reflective vinyl returns more light and maintains its reflectivity even when the light source changes angles. However, they are more challenging to produce, making them a more expensive option.

Understanding ASTM Ratings

Navigating through reflective vinyl types can be complicated due to varying levels of reflectivity. That’s why a rating system, known as ASTM D4956, was established. This scale uses Roman numerals from Type I to Type XI to classify the material’s reflectivity. While Type I is the least reflective and Type XI the most, it’s vital to adhere to any minimum requirements for specific applications, like road signage, for example.

The Printability Factor

Many reflective vinyl options are printable, but keep in mind that the printing process can reduce the material’s reflectivity. For road signs, specialized printers are necessary to maintain the required ASTM D Type ratings.

Key Considerations: Conformability and Cutting

When choosing reflective vinyl, it’s important to note that these materials are generally less flexible than traditional vinyls. For instance, the Oralite 5400 series is suitable only for flat surfaces, while the Oralite 5600 series can accommodate moderate curves.

Additionally, cutting reflective vinyl can be more challenging. While some materials may be cut with increased force and a standard 45° blade, this approach will quickly dull your blade. Using a 60° blade and adjusting your cutter settings for reflective materials is generally a better option.


Q: Can I print on reflective vinyl?

A: Yes, but doing so will reduce its reflectivity. Specialized printers are needed for road signage.

Q: Is reflective vinyl flexible?

A: Not as flexible as traditional vinyl. For example, the Oralite 5400 series is only good for flat surfaces.

Q: What are ASTM Ratings?

A: ASTM Ratings, ranging from Type I to Type XI, help you choose the correct level of reflectivity needed for your specific application.

Q: Beaded or Prismatic – which is better

A: It depends on your needs. Beaded is more flexible and works well when the light source is aligned with your eyes. Prismatic is more reflective but also more expensive.

Now you’re well-equipped to make an informed choice, whether you’re looking to add some flair to decals, erect signs around your community, or provide the local fire department with new reflective strips for their trucks. Happy choosing!