What makes super glue so super?

Tool Time

It's no surprise that this actually happens -- probably more often than you might think.

Super glue definitely deserves its name -- a 1-square-inch bond can hold more than a ton. So, what if find yourself in a super-sticky situation?

The main ingredient in Super glue is cyanoacrylate (C5H5NO2, for you chemistry buffs). Cyanoacrylate is an acrylic resin that cures (forms its strongest bond) almost instantly. The only trigger it requires is the hydroxyl ions in water, which is convenient since virtually any object you might wish to glue will have at least trace amounts of water on its surface. Air also contains water in the form of humidity.

White glues, such as Elmer's, bond by solvent evaporation. The solvent in Elmer's all-purpose school glue is water. When the water evaporates, the polyvinylacetate latex that has spread into a material's crevices forms a flexible bond. Super glue, on the other hand, undergoes a process called anionic polymerization. The chemical process of polymerization produces a certain amount of heat. If a large enough amount of super glue makes contact with your skin, it can actually cause burns.

Broken coffee cup
Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images
While super glue will fix your broken coffee cup forever, it could also bond your fingers to it.

Cyanoacrylate molecules start linking up when they come into contact with water, and they whip around in chains to form a durable plastic mesh. The glue thickens and hardens until the thrashing molecular strands can no longer move.


How do I unstick my fingers?

Let's say you're repairing some broken pottery and before you can say "Whoops," you've glued your index finger to your thumb! The recommended first aid treatment for this is:

  1. Soaking hands
    Photos_Alyson/Stonet/Getty Images
    If you do glue your fingers together, you need to soak them in warm water to loosen the glue.
    Scrape off any excess glue. Don't use cloth or tissue -- a chemical reaction between the fabric and glue could potentially cause burns or smoke.
  2. Soak the bonded fingers in a bath of warm, soapy water.
  3. Don't try forcing the fingers apart, or you'll tear the skin.
  4. After soaking, use some kind of dull, rounded utensil to carefully wedge the fingers apart.
  5. If you see no immediate success with this, drop a little acetone (found in nail polish remover) on the area. Again try wedging the digits apart.

At first, the thought of someone getting Super glue on his or her mouth seems pretty outlandish. But, let's face it a lot of us have a bad habit of using our teeth to wrench or twist off particularly stubborn caps. Say you do that with the top of the tube of glue and, presto, you've given an entirely new meaning to the phrase "zip it." In order to unzip those lips, your options on what to do are a little more limited:

  • Since you're dealing with an area on the face, do not use acetone.
  • Using a wide coffee cup or bowl, immerse your mouth in hot water.
  • You will also want to dampen the bonded skin from the inside of your mouth as much as possible.
  • Once you sense a loosening of the grip, use a dull, rounded utensil to wedge your mouth open. Be careful not to force it, or you will tear the skin.

If you think cyanoacrylate's ability to repair broken knick-knacks is super, wait until you hear about its other tricks. An interesting application is the use of cyanoacrylate to close wounds in place of stitches. Researchers found that by changing the type of alcohol in super glue, from ethyl or methyl alcohol to butyl or octyl, the compound becomes less toxic to tissue. Physicians aren't the only health care providers using cyanacrylate as a pharmacological fixative for their patients. Veterinarians use it too.