Shrink wrap—what it is, how it’s used, its benefits, cost and which products it suits best

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What is shrink wrap? How does it work?

When used to wrap a product, shrink wrap looks like this:

Plastic is heated so it shrinks over the product to form a tight film around it. This not only protects the product but makes it more difficult to tamper with.

When finished, the pack will have a small seam around it. While this is generally acceptable for lower‑priced items, top-end cosmetics and perfumes tend to use overwrapping instead. (Read more about overwrapping below)

How does the shrink wrapping process work?

  1. The product is grouped together (for example, a pack of four tins).
  2. The items are enveloped inside a loose bag of the shrink wrap film, either by a semi-automatic or fully automatic machine.
  3. The product is fed into a heated tunnel on a moving belt.
  4. The heat causes the film to shrink and cling to the product.
  5. The pack is allowed to cool, during which time the film strengthens and tightens around it, leaving you with a rigid pack of products.

The heat doesn’t affect the product inside the pack, and will only lightly warm the outside of it. Chocolate is frequently packed in shrink wrap with no ill effects!

What are the benefits of shrink wrap?

Shrink wrapping is an useful and excellent method of packing for the following reasons:

Low-cost

Because the shrink wrapping process is fairly simple, it’s cheaper to automate than other methods of wrapping.

Plus, since the plastic film shrinks, this type of packaging saves space when holding the items in storage or transporting them.

Versatile

Shrink wrap can be used with almost any product, regardless of its size, shape or design. It’s also an effective way of securing items or bundling them together.

Shows evidence of tampering

Covering a product in shrink wrap helps protect it—if the wrap has been split or torn away, the product might have been tampered with.

Provides protection

Not only does shrink wrap keep the product clean, but it protects the product from moisture or fading caused by sunlight. It also creates an airtight barrier.

Visually appealing

As it’s see-through, shrink wrap displays the product exactly as it is, while adding an extra, more attractive gloss.

Eco-friendly

A lot of packing companies use shrink wrap made from a type of plastic called LDPE. This is completely recyclable, which means there are no costs involved with sending it to landfill. It also reduces your carbon footprint.

What products are best shrink wrapped?

Products in many shapes and sizes can be shrink wrapped. Some examples include:

  • greetings cards
  • packs of playing cards
  • books and other printed literature
  • colour swatches and other samples
  • games and jigsaw puzzles
  • hand tools

What does it cost to shrink wrap?

Shrink wrapping costs less than overwrapping.

Typically, a small shrink wrap could add as much as 15p–28p to the product. However, this would depend on the length of the run (i.e. the number of items being wrapped) and the size of the product.

What sizes of products can be shrink wrapped?

Any product (within reason) up to 600mm x 600mm can be shrink wrapped. For products larger than this, sleeve wrapping is more suitable.

What kind of plastic is used for shrink wrap?

Shrink wrap is usually a PVC or polyolefin film, but this does depend on the product. Your co-packer will be able to give advice on the best film to use for the task in hand.

What are the alternatives to shrink wrap?

The main alternatives to shrink wrap are sleeve wrapping and overwrapping.

Sleeve wrapping

The thick, heavy-duty plastic coating used mainly to protect products during transportation. It’s used more for its practicality than any aesthetic purposes.

Sleeve wrapping is the cheapest option for transporting products in bulk, as it allows the products to be stacked on pallets while providing a solid protective layer. This price-to-protection ratio is great for heavy products that may incur higher transportation costs due to their size or weight.

The process

Similar to shrink wrapping, sleeve wrapping uses heat to tightly wrap your product.

  1. Heavy-duty polythene is wrapped around the product.
  2. The wrap is heated to 180 degrees.
  3. The pack is then cooled to make it tight and robust.

Advantages

  • Makes handling easier—both ends of the sleeve are left open so the package can be lifted using the wrap as a handle
  • Good for larger or more awkward objects
  • Great for stacking items on pallets—meaning less outer packaging
  • Offers excellent protection from damage and dirt during transportation

Examples of sleeve wrapped products

Food and drink in cans, bottles, jars or cartons

Read more about sleeve wrapping

Overwrapping

A delicate type of wrapping that’s less about protection and more about giving your product a luxury feel. It’s used for high-end or more prestigious products, which tends to add to their cost.

The process

Unlike shrink wrapping and sleeve wrapping, overwrapping does not need a lot of heat. The process is straightforward—a machine automatically folds the film around the product then gently heats the seal. The film is then sealed with envelope folds at each end.

Advantages

  • Stylish—provides a neat, professional and often luxurious and high-quality finish
  • Forms a strong protective barrier around the product, keeping any dirt and damage at bay
  • Extended shelf life—near airtight seal helps prevent cross-contamination
  • Easy to open
  • Process uses less energy than both shrink wrapping and sleeve wrapping

Examples of overwrapped products

Perfumes, CDs, confectionery, teabags, cigarettes

Read more about overwrapping

Stretch wrapping vs shrink wrap—what’s the difference?

Stretch wrapping means wrapping goods to a pallet. The type of film used can vary, but is usually very flexible. It’s pre-stretched when applied to a pallet, so it tightens when the wrapping is complete.

It’s a much thicker wrap, but is generally only used for protection during transportation.

When should we shrink wrap products in-house?

If you are only wrapping one offs and samples, in-house shrink wrapping may be appropriate. Hand-held equipment is low cost and you could set up for less than £200. However, if you want to do regular product runs, it is worth outsourcing to a contract packer, since it is low cost anyway.

Find out more

Everything you need to know about contract packing—why your business should use a contract packer and how to choose one

FAQs about packaging and contract packing

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