Plastic tub surround in upstairs bathroom. The two corner panels with shelves have yellowed over time. August 3, 2022.
family home projects work in progress

Retr0brighting a Tub Surround

And now for something completely different in regards to our home renovation projects. Different from painting, I mean, which we have been doing a lot of.

A couple of the plastic panels of our tub surround in the upstairs bathroom weren’t looking so great anymore. We had installed the tub surround during our circa 2004 home renovation, when we redid the walls in the bathroom. Over time, certain plastics yellow with exposure to UV light.

Plastic tub surround in upstairs bathroom. The two corner panels with shelves have yellowed over time. August 3, 2022.
Plastic tub surround in upstairs bathroom. The two corner panels with shelves have yellowed over time. August 3, 2022.

We have a skylight in this bathroom, plus a window in the hallway shines sunlight from the west into the bathroom, so there’s definitely UV light getting into this room. As you can see from the photo above, the two tub surround panels with built-in shelves yellowed, while the flat plastic panels remained white.

We talked about replacing the surround, but other than the yellowing, it was still in good shape and removing it would create a lot of work.

Erik, in his many forays into learning how to repair and refinish items via YouTube University, had run across a technique called “retr0brighting” for bleaching yellowed plastics using hydrogen peroxide. And, yes, the zero is an official part of the term retr0bright.

He showed me a couple of videos and I looked up the technique and decided to give it a try.

I went with the mild version first, mixing 3% hydrogen peroxide from the pharmacy with baking soda to make a paste and slathering it onto the yellow panels. After a few applications, I could see that some of the yellow was disappearing but not enough to make a significant difference.

Time to step up to the stronger solution, which meant ordering cream peroxide developer and ultraviolet (blacklight) bulbs from Amazon. Cream peroxide developer is 12% hydrogen peroxide and it is used in the salon business to bleach hair. Exposing the hydrogen peroxide to UV light activates the bleaching process on plastic (but don’t ask me how that works exactly!).

32-ounce bottle of Super Star 40 Volume Cream Peroxide Developer. August 19, 2022.
32-ounce bottle of Super Star 40 Volume Cream Peroxide Developer. August 19, 2022.

 

2-pack of Greenic brand 8-watt LED blacklight bulbs. August 19, 2022.
2-pack of Greenic brand 8-watt LED blacklight bulbs. August 19, 2022.

Yesterday morning, Erik and I went into the bathroom with our safety equipment, plastic gloves, small sponge paint roller, and sunglasses, and got to work spreading the cream peroxide all over the panels. We used about a third of a 32-ounce bottle and that was probably a little much.

Me, using a sponge paint roller to apply cream peroxide developer to a yellowed tub surround panel. August 19, 2022.
Me, using a sponge paint roller to apply cream peroxide developer to a yellowed tub surround panel. August 19, 2022.

We covered each panel in thin, 1 mm plastic (a drop cloth from a painting supply store – Hirschfield’s, of course!), after applying the peroxide. The plastic keeps the peroxide from drying out. We wanted this to be thin plastic so the UV light would not be blocked from reaching the peroxide.

Husky brand 1 mil plastic drop cloth rolled inside its bag. We cut what we needed from this larger piece to cover each yellowed tub surround panel. August 19, 2022.
Husky brand 1 mil plastic drop cloth rolled inside its bag. We cut what we needed from this larger piece to cover each yellowed tub surround panel. August 19, 2022.

 

The tub surround with yellowed plastic panels covered in peroxide and plastic. August 19, 2022.
The tub surround with yellowed plastic panels covered in peroxide and plastic. August 19, 2022.

We set up two lights with UV bulbs and switched them on while wearing sunglasses.  I quickly snapped a photo for this post and we left the room, shutting the door behind us. (Y’all, UV light is really bad for your eyes and skin, though my husband said people used to sit around in rooms with blacklights recreationally. I was probably overreacting with the sunglasses, but I have enough problems with my eyes that I didn’t want to take any risks.)

The tub surround lit by two lamps with blacklights. August 19, 2022.
The tub surround lit by two lamps with blacklights. August 19, 2022.

After leaving the bathroom in this state for 8 hours, we returned, shut off the blacklights, and peeked under a corner of the plastic. It was looking good, but we decided to leave it another couple of hours before removing the plastic and rinsing off the peroxide.

Here is the result.

The yellowed panels of the tub surround are now white after retr0brighting them. August 19, 2022.
The yellowed panels of the tub surround are now white after retr0brighting them. August 19, 2022.

We are enormously pleased that the yellowed panels are now white and match the rest of the surround. This was a simple project that saved us a ton of time, effort, and cost in replacing the tub surround.

In case you need before and after photos next to each other …

Left: The tub surround with yellow panels before retr0brighting. Right: The tub panels are white after retr0brighting. August 2022.
Left: The tub surround with yellow panels before retr0brighting. Right: The tub panels are white after retr0brighting. August 2022.

The one thing we would have been more careful about if we’d had to do this over was to avoid getting peroxide on the paint. It caused the paint to bubble. I guess we’ll be doing more painting. 😐

Bubbles in the paint above the tub surround from cream peroxide developer. August 19, 2022.
Bubbles in the paint above the tub surround from cream peroxide developer. August 19, 2022.

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