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How To Prevent Rubber From Becoming Sticky

How to maintain rubber parts on a camera body

Every camera starts to degrade after years of use. Among the many things that happen when cameras are stored away for a long time, is that the rubber parts start to degrade. Rubber degradation is inevitable. However, there are some concrete steps that you can take to preserve the rubber parts of your camera and other equipment around the house.

There isn’t a way to fully restore rubber that has already started to degrade, but there are ways to keep the rubber from degrading too quickly in the first place. This is especially important if you are in hot and humid climates. Let’s get started on understanding how and why rubber degrades, and how we can slow down that process.

The Reality of Rubber Degradation

Rubber is an organic compound (isoprene) that is made from latex (the sap of the rubber tree), or from petroleum and petroleum products. Over time, any rubber will start to degrade, so manufacturers use chemicals and physical processes to slow down the process. These processes ensure that rubber retains its shape, form, and elasticity for as many years as possible. Rubber starts degrading as soon as it’s made. The chemical additives in rubber are fine-tuned toward the very specific application of each rubber part. This is why some rubber parts and surfaces degrade sooner than others.

There are also steps that you should take to ensure that you take good care of your equipment for the rubber to last a long time.

Do This To Preserve Rubber Parts:

Here are some positive steps that you can take to ensure that your camera’s rubber parts don’t get sticky.

  • Keep the surface of the rubber clean. Clean-off hand oils, solvents, debris, and other items from the rubber as soon as possible, and before your store your camera or accessories for long periods.
  • Keep rubber at low temperatures, with low humidity (cameras like to be stored below 65%RH). This reduces the volatility of the rubber compound.
  • Keep rubber in a space with good ventilation, and where harmful vapors don’t build up. Chemicals penetrate into rubber, and can affect it over time.
  • Use your camera often so that the rubber parts get stretched and used. This ensures that the chemical additives stay within the rubber material, and do not separate from it.

Avoid Doing This, To Preserve Rubber Parts:

Preserving the rubber grip of your camera is as much about avoiding the wrong actions, as it is about doing the right things.

  • Do not use solvents to clean rubber. Solvents like isopropyl alcohol, thinners, etc could damage the rubber. In fact, that is why we talk about using isopropyl alcohol later in this article – to remove rubber coatings.
  • Do not expose the rubber to UV light for extended periods. For example, UV light from daylight and fluorescent lamps. UV light breaks down the components of rubber, aging it sooner than it needs to. That said, don’t be too protective of it either. Cameras are meant to be used.
  • Do not expose rubber parts to high humidity and temperatures over long periods of time. Avoid RH (Relative Humidity) values over 65%. Extreme situations with heat and humidity make the components of rubber grips and other camera parts break down. So if you carry your camera around with you daily, don’t leave your camera in your car in the parking lot while you go in to work.
  • Do not expose rubber to chemicals, acidic fumes, polluting gases like Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, and other volatile gases that are emitted from plastics and rubbers as they decompose. The chemicals in sunscreen, DEET, perfumes, deodorants, and other insecticides can also kick off rubber degradation. Rubber is porous, and it absorbs these chemicals from the environment.

Which Parts Of A Camera Have Rubber That Can Degrade?

Cameras and other systems have many rubber parts both inside them and outside. It becomes important to take steps to preserve these rubber parts for your equipment to have a long usable life. Let’s separate these parts into rubber on the camera, and rubber on the lens.

Rubber Parts On The Camera

Cameras have rubber on their grips, and eyepieces, some cameras have their metal surfaces coated in thin rubber for added grip. The thin rubber coating often becomes sticky when it degrades. Cameras and lenses also have rubber and plastic washers, gaskets, covers for where jacks and ports are covered against the elements, and more. It’s important that these parts don’t degrade.

Rubber Parts On The Lens

Lenses often have focus or zoom rings with rubber on the grips to ensure that your fingers don’t slip. These are the parts that usually start degrading with a white residue over them. Inside the lens, there are gaskets that keep moisture and dust out of the lens insides. Lens manufacturers account for all of this when selecting the type of rubber to use for the gaskets, but it helps to maintain it well.

The Rubber on Accessories and Storage Material

These are parts that come into contact with the camera and lens often, and they sometimes leave a residue. The rubber on camera bags, the pluck-out foam in hard cases, the grippy rubber on the insides of camera straps, eyecups, cables that transfer data, the list goes on…

It’s especially important that your cameras are protected from degrading rubber and plastic when kept in long-term storage. In the past, I’ve noticed that the foam in hard cases tends to degenerate, and since these cases are air-tight there is nowhere for the volatile compounds and gases to go. These gases can fog up lenses, and cause corrosion on the outside of your camera.

Why Does Rubber Degrade Over Time?

Rubber is made of either organic or synthetic raw materials. Organic rubber is made from latex, the sap from the rubber tree. Inorganic rubber is made from petroleum byproducts.

Collection of natural latex from a rubber tree

Both forms of rubber start off as sticky substances and can start degrading as soon as they’re made. To prevent this, various steps are taken, starting with vulcanizing of latex, and the addition of various chemicals such as antioxidants, UV stabilizers, antiozonants, etc. However, oxidation, thermal aging, and general wear and tear of rubber parts is an inevitable part of camera usage.

Why use Rubber in the First Place, if it is Going to Degrade?

Rubber offers properties that are not easily found in nature. It is pliable, it is an insulator, it can be used to create water-tight seals that prevent moisture from entering into sensitive equipment, and it does actually have a reasonably long working lifespan.

Rubber parts can easily be produced, and are not too expensive unless the rubber needs to have some really unique properties. Rubber has also been a part of our civilizations for many centuries and is an integral part of our modern life. For these reasons, it’s no surprise that cameras also have rubber parts. It’s up to us to take good care of our equipment.

What Are The Main Causes Of Rubber Degradation?

Time is probably the biggest factor in rubber degradation, but there are other factors that could accelerate rubber degradation. There are many types of rubber and each one has a slightly different set of factors that causes it to degrade. Here are some of the common reasons why rubber degradation is accelerated.

  • Oxidation
  • Exposure to UV light
  • Heat (keep rubber as cool as possible)
  • Humidity (keep it below 65% RH)
  • Lack of use
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as certain Oxidizers, Acids, Oils, and Alkalis.
  • Transfer of chemicals from hands to rubber, which can degrade it; like DEET and Sunscreen to rubber
  • Certain bacteria (See References Below)

Why Does Rubber Start Becoming White?

Close up old tires with whitened surface and cracks
Close-up old tires with whitened surfaces and cracks

Natural rubber starts degrading after a while, with white material forming on the outside. Usually, the rubber starts becoming white due to a crystallization of the rubber’s compounding components and is called Rubber Blooming.

These components come out of the bulk of the rubber and crystallize on the surface when they’re not used often. The crystals take on a white form that could be powdery, or ingrained in the rubber itself.

The rubber ends up feeling powdery, hard, and whiteish-grey in color. This is sometimes called rubber dry rot but is not actually a process of rotting.

This can be prevented by regular use. As the rubber flexes, it keeps these compounds from rising to the surface.

How Can I Remove The White Powdery Surface From Rubber?

There are many posts on the internet about how to remove the residue, including the use of isopropyl alcohol and other organic and inorganic solvents. This is not advisable.

As you already know, you should not be exposing rubber to chemicals if you want it to last. It may remove the white layer temporarily, but in the long term, you can expect that the rubber will start to degrade even more quickly if you use chemicals.

Instead, prevention is better than cure. Use your camera regularly, and with regular use, the rubber will flex, and the components will be less likely to leave the main body rubber, creating that white layer on top.

Typically, to remove this white residue that has already formed on the surface of the rubber grip, or on the lens rings, you would a) buff off the crystallized residue, b) clean it with water and nothing more, and c) finally apply a conditioner that is recommended for that particular type of rubber.

Now, since Canon, Sony, Nikon, etc. don’t really sell lens/camera rubber reconditioning formulas, it makes sense to just use your equipment carefully and help it to last a long time through careful and mindful use.

What Should You Do With Rubber Parts That Are Starting To Become Sticky?

Start by treating them better immediately. Make sure that you keep rubber away from hot and humid areas. Store it in humidity and temperature-controlled areas.

If the rubber is only just starting to become sticky, you can give it a light dusting of talcum powder to reduce the tackiness. Prevention is better than cure, so ensure that you don’t let hand lotions, DEET, or sunscreen get on the rubber parts of the camera.

Stickiness is the second way in which rubber tends to deteriorate and is also called Rubber Reversion. While the first way sees the rubber becoming hard because of environmental reasons, this second way is from rubber returning to its original state.

How To Stop Rubber Parts On Electronics From Becoming Sticky

  • Store the electronics carefully, away from heat and humidity – as mentioned earlier. This will ensure that your camera equipment does not start becoming sticky because of rubber reversion.
  • Do not use DEET or Sunscreen on your hands while using a camera. This is a major reason why rubber on cameras becomes sticky over time. Even game controllers become sticky for this reason.
  • Certain types of rubber are prone to becoming sticky and even losing adhesion to the surface that it is applied to. This often happens in tropical climates. I have observed this happen on a GoPro Hero2, Zoom H4n Audio Recorder, and other smaller electronic devices. If this happens, you may have to just scrape it off.

How Do You Clean Off Sticky Rubber From a Camera?

Sometimes the layer of rubber covering a device is thin but very sticky. You can remove the layer by applying Isopropyl Alcohol with a cloth, and rubbing it until all the rubber is removed. Be careful to not use so much alcohol that it drips into the joints of the camera body. Just moisten a cotton or microfibre cloth, with rubbing alcohol, and wipe off the rubber coating until the metal below it is completely clean of it.

Other sources claim that moistened Baking Soda is also useful to remove this thin layer of rubber. I would not recommend using either of these techniques with any serious photography equipment as it is quite likely to enter into the camera or lens and damage it permanently.

It may be safer to scrape the rubber off instead. In the case of my GoPro Hero 2, I scraped off the layer with the smooth edge of a knife. However, the resulting finish left much to be desired.

Why Do Rubber And Plastic Become Sticky Over Time?

As rubber reverts to its original form, it becomes sticky. Reversion is a useful property of rubber, and it can be used to recycle rubber as some of the compound components are ejected from the rubber, and it goes back into its original form.

In Conclusion

To conclude, take care of your camera … use it often. Remember to store it carefully when it’s not being used, in low RH and low temperature. Wipe it down before storing it, and if you can, remove chemicals from your hands when handling the camera throughout the day.

All these steps will help the rubber on your camera body to have a long, productive life, and you can avoid rubber degradation – Blooming/Dry Rot and Reversion.

Cleaning the camera. Regular maintenance is important.
Cleaning the camera. Regular maintenance is important.

FAQ About Rubber Care & Maintenance

Does Isopropyl Alcohol Remove The Stickiness From Rubber?

The stickiness is usually not on top of the rubber but is actually the rubber itself that is reverting to its original state.

Isopropyl Alcohol (also called rubbing alcohol) is a solvent. It will speed up the degradation process in rubber. If you are trying to remove a thin coat of rubber that has become sticky, a little alcohol on a piece of cloth will help to remove it, but on larger blocks of rubber, Isopropyl Alcohol is only a temporary solution that will only speed up the reversion process.

What Is The Best Way To Preserve Rubber?

Store rubber in low temperatures, and low relative humidity (RH). Use your camera often, and ensure that chemicals do not come in contact with the rubber parts of your camera.

My Camera Is Already Sticky. Can I Make The Rubber Hard Again?

You can reduce the stickiness – a little – by applying a thin coat of talcum powder to the affected areas while ensuring that none of it goes into the mechanical parts of the camera.

However, this is not a solution. It only reduces the stickiness of the rubber and does not stop the process. Ultimately, the solution is to replace the sticky part with fresh rubber and take good care of it.

References:

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Published: October 16, 2021 | Last Updated: December 1, 2022

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