How to remove super glue

Super glue is permanent, right? Actually it’s not, and it’s not necessarily as strong as we think it is either. In some cases, super glue is extremely strong and worthy of its name. But sometimes it’s a pushover, and that can be a good thing. That means you can get rid of it when you need to. Here’s how to remove super glue.

Super glue dissolves readily in acetone, or you can use specialty debonders sold in hobby shops, or use a couple of my other tricks to break its bond. Water will not help, as moisture accelerates its bond.

How to remove super glue from human skin

Super glue has weaknesses you can exploit to remove it when needed. You can remove super glue with acetone, but cold temperatures and twisting can also work.

Human skin presents a bit of a challenge. Cyanoacrylate, the active ingredient in super glue, bonds really readily to human skin. This can be a good thing in medical applications. But it’s not a good thing in DIY or repair applications.

That said, super glue doesn’t make an unbreakable bond on skin. There are two approaches to removing it: using oil and using solvents. Oil is a bit less aggressive. So I recommend you try oil first, and then if that fails, use acetone. Acetone isn’t the best thing for your skin, but it’s safer than most other solvents. It’s the main ingredient in some nail polish removers, so it’s relatively safe on skin. Many common household solvents are not.

Use oil

Oil and adhesives aren’t exactly best friends. So you can try applying a bit of oil, whatever oil you have handy, to the bond. Olive oil is probably best, but go with what you have. Let it soak about 15 minutes, then gently pull it apart. Use a side to side or twisting motion, rather than an up and down motion. Super glue’s side to side strength isn’t very strong, which is why some super glue repairs fail while others succeed incredibly well.

If you’re in a hurry, you’ll have to use a solvent.

Use acetone

Acetone is a common solvent, and it works very well to dissolve super glue. If you accidentally glue yourself to something late at night, acetone may be your best bet, as it is readily available at stores that stay open long hours. Yes, you can use acetone to remove super glue from your hands.

Any store that sells paint sells acetone in the same section as the paint. This makes home improvement centers a good source, as those stores tend to stay open late, around 10 pm. Your nearest hardware store or paint store probably doesn’t stay open quite that late.

Just be careful if you’re buying acetone at a hardware store. Some of the other solvents sold in the same aisle, like lacquer thinner and MEK, are more aggressive, very bad for human health, and not all that effective on glue anyway. Stick with acetone, which is clearly labeled on the can.

If the home improvement stores are closed, there’s an alternative: Acetone nail polish. A 24-hour pharmacy will probably carry some, so if you need some in the wee hours, that’s an option. Just be sure to get acetone nail polish. Non-acetone nail polish isn’t very good  at removing super glue.

To use it, try applying a bit of acetone to the affected area and let it soak in. You can put some in a bowl and soak in it if you have to, but it’s better to try a small amount first. Give it about 15 seconds. When you try to pull away, don’t pull straight up. Rock from side to side or twist as best you can. Super glue’s side-to-side strength isn’t great. Play to its weaknesses, don’t go up against its greatest strength.

Using a debonder

You can get specialty debonders for super glue, but they aren’t as readily available as acetone. Pacer super glue debonder is sold in hobby shops. The problem with that is the relative scarcity of hobby shops. I happen to have a good, well-stocked hobby shop three minutes away, but that’s more and more unusual these days.

To use debonder, simply apply a bit to the affected area, wait about 15 seconds, then pull side to side or twist. If this sounds just like the instructions for acetone, that’s because the active ingredient in debonder is acetone.

I’m a big proponent of supporting your local hobby shop, but if you don’t have a hobby shop or it isn’t open, a pharmacy or home improvement store will be able to help you.

Use alcohol

If you can’t or don’t want to use acetone, you can use alcohol to remove super glue. The trick is similar to acetone. Apply some with a cotton swab and let it soak in. The problem is the alcohol is slower acting than acetone, so we’re talking minutes rather than seconds. Let it soak in, then twist or pull side to side, never up and down.

If you’re impatient, acetone is a better bet. If you’re impatient and don’t have acetone and can send someone to the store, try this. Apply alcohol and let it soak in while your buddy is fetching acetone. If the alcohol works before your buddy gets back, that’s fine. You were going to wait that long anyway. If it doesn’t work, the acetone will work in less than a minute and you didn’t really lose anything.

Remove super glue from objects

As a general rule, super glue will stick well to anything that you can paint. The reason super glue seems to work great sometimes and terribly other times is because it’s not equally strong in all directions. Its up-and-down strength is tremendous. That’s why in 1980s commercials a man was able to glue his helmet to a beam and hold himself in the air by his helmet. Its side-to-side strength isn’t very good. That’s why epoxy or even old-fashioned white glue sometimes seems stronger. Their tensile strength is much higher.

You can use super glue’s weaknesses against it to remove it when a repair goes bad. Then you can try again, either using super glue, or using a different glue. This means sometimes you can break apart its bond without using any chemicals.

When it’s safe to use solvents

Some materials react better to solvents than others. Plastic tends to react very badly. So if you’re fixing a plastic toy and need to remove the super glue, using acetone or alcohol shouldn’t be your first course of action.

The same goes for anything that has any kind of printing or design on it. The object itself might be fine, but a solvent might damage or remove the design.

If the repair involves metal, or unfinished wood, or basically anything non-plastic that doesn’t have a design or a finish on it, you can use alcohol or (ideally) acetone to debond it quickly. Then use acetone on a cotton swab to clean off any remaining glue so you can try again.

If you can’t use solvents, or have the luxury of time, you have other options.

The twist option

Depending on what you glued together, you may be able to just twist it apart. The trick is getting a grip on either side of the bond. Reaching in with some pliers can help. If the pliers have serrated jaws, try covering them with electrical tape to avoid marring your repaired object. Just reach in and get a grip on either side of the bond, then twist gently. Don’t use too much force at first, because you want to break the bond, not the object, and the bond probably is weaker than the object. If it doesn’t give, stop and consider other options. But if you feel it start to give, just slowly and gently continue twisting until it lets up.

Once you have the pieces apart again, clean off the remaining glue with a bit of acetone on a cotton swab. As long as you use small amounts applied directly to the glue, you can even use acetone on plastics. Cleaning the affected area will help you get a better bond when you try to glue it again, regardless of the kind of glue you use the next time.

Use your freezer

Super glue doesn’t like cold temperatures. It makes it very brittle and weakens the bond. That means when you want to remove super glue without acetone or other solvents, you can just put the object in your freezer overnight. After spending the night in the fridge, the super glue loses its superpowers. You can scrape at it to scrape it away, twist, or even pull. Yes, you can get away even with an up and down motion after it’s been in the freezer.

This is why super glue isn’t suitable for outdoor use, if you’re wondering. This trick is how hobbyists who restore vintage slot cars disassemble their cars to work on them, since slot cars often were built with super glue from the factory.

Again, once you’ve debonded the glue and taken the pieces back apart, you can clean off the residual glue either by scraping or using acetone on a cotton swab. This step is crucial after using cold to remove super glue, as the residual glue will be very weak. Which is better? Whichever works. Try scraping first, and if scraping isn’t easy, try acetone. Or scrape off what you can, then use acetone to remove whatever is left.

What about removing super glue with heat?

Trying to remove super glue with heat is a bad idea for several reasons. First, super glue withstands heat much more effectively than cold. The kinds of temperatures that will cause super glue to fail are more likely to damage the object, especially if the object is plastic. But the second problem with using heat is that at excessively high temperatures, the super glue breaks down into cyanide. Cyanide is poisonous.

Don’t mess around. Stick with cold or with solvents, for the sake of your own safety.

Preventing super glue mishaps

If you’re reading this, you probably already have a problem, and I’m not here to lecture you. Mistakes happen. But when you go to try the repair again, there are some tricks that can help you prevent a repeat occurrence.

The first trick is to wear rubber gloves while working with super glue. I’d rather glue my glove to my repair than my hand, because then I can free myself by taking off the glove. Then I can figure out how to unglue the glove.

The second trick is proper application. Clean the two surfaces you’re going to glue first, using a mild solvent like alcohol. If the surface is painted, scrape the paint away too. Then apply a very small quantity. Usually one drop is enough. The glue will spread out when you press the pieces together. More isn’t better with this stuff. Frequently using more of it weakens the bond instead of strengthening it, plus it increases the chances of gluing yourself to your work.

Using small amounts and wearing gloves makes mishaps much less likely. I have some more tips for super glue if you need them.

What super glue isn’t good at

The other trick is knowing what super glue isn’t especially good at. Not using it for what it’s bad at helps reduce the probability that you’ll need to remove it later, or that you’ll make a mistake that results in you gluing it to something you didn’t want to.

There are special formulas that have gap-filling ability. If your pieces don’t fit together tightly and you’re not using a specially formulated gap-filling glue, you won’t get a very strong repair. You can fill gaps by applying a bit of glue, then sprinkling baking soda onto it. If that sounds tedious, use a gap-filling glue, or use a different glue like epoxy.

The second problem with super glue is that while it handles up and down stress extremely well, side-to-side stress gives it problems. If the piece you’re going to be repairing gets a lot of side-to-side stress, epoxy is probably a better adhesive to use. Epoxy dries much more slowly, but the resulting repair will be stronger. If you’re brave, you can combine the two. Apply one drop of super glue to part of the repair, then, a good distance away, apply a small amount of epoxy. The super glue will dry quickly. As long as you don’t subject the piece to stress, the super glue will hold it together until the epoxy has a chance to fully cure. At that point, you have the strength of the epoxy going for it.

And while super glue sticks well to some plastics, it does poorly with modern plastics. There are special formulas for modern plastics. If you’re fixing a plastic toy made in the 1990s or after, use one of those, rather than an all-purpose super glue. You’ll get much better results. For older plastics like polystyrene, often used in plastic models, super glue works fine though there may be better choices.

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