Comprehensive Guide to Retro Reflective Tapes

Comprehensive Guide to Retro Reflective Tapes

Complete Expert Guide to Retro Reflective Tapes

With its primary goal being to enhance visibility and mark hazardous areas, reflective tape serves multiple important functions and applications to promote safety. By reflecting light, this tape's unique design stands out and grabs attention.

Reflective tape is an essential tool for federal and state transportation agencies and is utilized by numerous industries due to its safety applications. There are also numerous personal applications for it.

expert guide to retro reflective tape

Characteristics of Reflective Sheeting (Tape)

To reflect, retro reflective tape must have either glass beads embedded in the film, or microprisms. Microprisms are embossed into the back of the film and either metallized like a mirror, or backed with a white backing. Both methods work to create reflectivity. Oralite V82 is an example of a metallized microprismatic film. 3m Diamond Grade is an example of an air backed film with the white backing.

It should be noted that Reflective Tape is different from Glow In The Dark Tape. Retro reflective tape reflects light like a mirror, whereas glow tape absorbs light and releases it over a period of time. When reflecting, reflective tape is much brighter than glow tape.

How Does Retro Reflective Tape Function?

This product, known as retro-reflective tape or sheeting, works by bouncing light back to the source of the light. When it does this, it illuminates brightly, making it easily visible.

It's important to note that the reflection of light only returns to the source. This makes the beam of returning light brighter and more focused. This brightness makes the tape stand out from its surroundings, which produces conspicuity. As an example, if one person is holding a flashlight up to their nose and viewing reflective tape, it seems bright to them. But if a person is standing a few feet away, the tape does not appear bright. This is because all the light is being focused back to the source of the light which is the flashlight.

Also, a person or vehicle does not need to be directly in front or perpendicular to a reflective surface for it to reflect. A viewer can be at an angle up to 60 degrees in some cases and still see the light reflect from that angle.

Understanding Reflective Tape

As previously stated, reflective tape possesses unique qualities that enable it to reflect light. This is achieved using either glass beads or microprisms. Reflective tape is categorized into three primary types, each with its own purpose.

Reflective Tapes - 3 Main Categories

Reflective tape comes in three different grades or types.

  • Engineering Grade Type 1 (original invention)

  • High-intensity Grade Type 3 (improvement from original)

  • Micro-Prismatic Grade Types 4 - 11 (new invention)


1. Engineering Grade Type 1 Retro Reflective Tape

Like most reflective tapes, Engineering Grade Reflective Tape features a pressure-sensitive adhesive that allows it to adhere to a variety of surfaces. This Type 1 film uses either glass bead technology to make it reflective.

The most common use for this product in the past was traffic signs. However, because it is not as reflective as newer grades of retro reflective tape, it is now primarily used for non-regulated traffic signs, vehicle graphics, digitally printed reflective decals, and CAD cutting operations.

A feature that continues to make Engineer Grade films very popular is their compatibility with digital and screen printing and die cutting. These films can be temporary or permanent, with a durability of up to seven years for standard engineer, and 12 years for super engineer grade.

2. High-Intensity Grade Type 3 Reflective Films

High-intensity grade reflective tape has a honeycomb surface with cells that are filled with high index glass beads. It is highly reflective at about 3 times the intensity of engineer grade films, so it can be seen from farther away.

It is commonly used in situations where safety relies on greater visibility, such as traffic cones or barricades. Due to its topcoat, high intensity type 3 is more durable and has a lifespan of up to 10 years.

CAD cutting is an issue with this film due to its more advanced construction.

3. Micro-Prismatic Grade Reflective Tape (Types 4 - 11)

Prismatic grade reflective tapes contain cube prisms that reflect an increased amount of light compared to high-intensity grade tape.

In the US, this type of tape is commonly used for new traffic control signage because it is brighter. It is frequently chosen for work zones, school zones, and other critical safety applications.

Like most reflective films, the adhesive is pressure-sensitive and strong. Different adhesives are used depending on the application. For example, tape for barrels and traffic cones use an adhesive specifically formulated for plastic flexible surfaces.

As stated above, micro-prismatic sheeting comes in many classes from Type 4 to Type 11. All the films are incredibly bright, with type 11 being the brightest and the one with the widest observation angle. Type 5 is the brightest of all the films, with its application being delineators.

expert guide to retro reflective tape

What is Reflective Tape Used For?

Reflective tape is used to enhance the visibility of the object or surface it is applied to. While often employed in transportation, it has a wide range of other common uses. For the most part, all applications are to enhance the night time visibility of an object such as a bike, vehicle, boat, helmet, etc… The list below outlines the more popular applications.

Road and Traffic Safety

Reflective tape is primarily used for road and traffic safety to ensure people's safety while on the road. Reflective tape is a reliable method to signal road hazards on roads and highways, as it operates without electricity or any power source. Instead, reflective tape on roads and streets uses light from vehicles to illuminate. We often refer to this as passive visibility versus active. (active = bulb or led powered lights)

Large Commercial Vehicle Retro Reflective Striping

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires trailer manufacturers to equip trailers with red and white retro-reflective material on the sides and rear, and the FHWA currently requires motor carriers to maintain the retro-reflective material on the trailers. Proper marking is crucial to prevent these large commercial vehicles from disappearing in the background and becoming a hazard to approaching vehicles. Paradoxically, their colossal size often hinders visibility, especially up close.

Tape colors and sizes must adhere to DOT regulations. DOT regulations also specify where the tape should be located on the trailer.

Retro Reflective Tape on Traffic Cones, Road Barrels, and Barricades

Work Zones can be dangerous places because of the confusion they create, and their proximity to fast moving traffic. Within these zones, there are traffic cones, road barrels, barricades, work vehicles, and workers. All of these elements in a work zone are safeguarded by the application of retro reflective tape.

Bicycle and Motorcycle Safety

Bicycles and motorcycles, which are already at a disadvantage on roadways, can benefit from using reflective tape. Serious and deadly accidents can occur when these small modes of transportation are not detected by oncoming motorists. Bicycles and motorcycles with reflective tape are easier for other drivers to see and less likely to fade into the darkness.

Retro Reflective Tape and Workplace Safety

Retro reflective tapes find common use in factories, warehouses, offices, and other workplace environments. Like small cities, these environments need all the same elements to regulate traffic and ensure the well-being of people.

Road markers, signs, posters, striping, decals, graphics, and more are examples of reflective products used in these locations.

Construction and Hazard Zones

Construction sites and Work Zones are among the most dangerous work environments, and can also pose a risk to both workers and the public. Safety is of utmost importance on job sites and in work zones because of large machines, obstructions to traffic, high activity, falling objects, and other hazards.

Reflective tape allows for marking hazards throughout a work zone or construction site. These zones become significantly safer by allowing early site visibility and nighttime visibility. Retro reflective tape is designed specifically for this purpose.

Retro Reflective Trim for Garments and Safety Gear

Reflective tape can be used to mark vehicles, structures, clothing, and gear for both decorative and protective purposes. Making hard hats more visible day and night by using reflective tape is important for worker safety, and incorporating retro reflective garment trim into clothing enhances people's visibility, and the easier people are to see, the safer they are. Keep in mind, reflective garment trim benefits more than just workers. Improved visibility is beneficial for sports enthusiasts, runners, walkers, bikers, kayakers, hikers, and more.

Equipment and Machinery Visibility

Machinery and equipment can cause deadly accidents. Using reflective tape can help to mark dangerous parts or ensure the edges of equipment are visible. Applying the tape to floors can also help workers to better navigate the work area. It is also highly usable on farm machinery to help increase awareness of dangerous parts or pieces.

Reflective Tape for Outdoor Activities and Sports

To ensure safety during outdoor activities and sporting type events, enhanced visibility is necessary. Retro reflective tape is the perfect tool to make objects, people, and structures visible at night. Applying marine reflective tape can make watercraft and sailboats easily visible at night with a spotlight. Oralite SOLAS marine reflective tape is an example of a highly reflective that is ideal for marine applications, such as life jackets, boats, canoes, paddle boards or kayaks. This tape provides visibility in case of an accident out on the water. It enhances safety on watercraft, especially during inclement weather conditions, where extreme sight distance is needed for rescue.

It’s also much easier to locate lost hikers or campers who use reflective tape on themselves and their gear. So whether you are camping, hiking, traveling in your RV, running, walking, or biking, reflective tape can keep you much safer, especially at night.

Reflective Safety for Pets and Farm Animals

To make it easier to find pets in the dark, reflective tape can be added to their collars, harnesses, and leashes. Also, for farm animals, reflective tape can be added to ear tags to make them visible should they wander onto a road. This not only saves your livestock but also reduces your liability should there be an accident.

Choosing the Right Reflective Tape

Given the diverse range of reflective tapes available, it is useful to familiarize oneself with the specific characteristics of each option. Essentially, you want to confirm the tape's suitability for your intended use.

The factors you will want to consider include:

  • Flexibility and Conformability - will the tape bend around corners, and will it conform to uneven surfaces if needed?

  • Reflectivity and Visibility - how far away will the viewer be when he needs to see the tape? Different type tapes have different candela ratings, meaning some are much brighter than others. But the brightest may not be the one you need if viewers are close in.

  • Weather and UV Resistance - will the tape be in the sun constantly, or subject to a salt water environment?

  • Adhesive strength - given the application surface, how strong and how thick of an adhesive is needed?

  • Durability and Longevity - some tapes are rated 3 years, and some are rated as high as 12 years. Choose the one that matches your application.

Evaluating Tape Specifications

Understanding how to evaluate the different factors of each product is key when shopping for reflective tape. You should consider:

  • Reflectivity Intensity - Reflectivity intensity standards depend on your application. Retro reflective tapes come in Type 1 through Type 11, and generally speaking, as you go up in type, the brightness increases. The type of reflective tape needed increases with the distance required for visibility. Close in applications can use a Type 1 or Type 2 engineer type tape. Farther out you can use a Type 3. But for long sight distance applications, a Type 4 or better is recommended.

  • Adherence to Safety Standards and Regulations - For certain uses, the application of reflective tape must comply with established legal guidelines. Typically, this pertains to its usage on vehicles of some type. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has specific regulations outlining the proper application and the type of tape for tractor trailers and other vehicles. It is crucial in these cases to select tape that complies with these DOT specifications. Other applications, including marine, railroads, school buses, gate arms, traffic control devices, and more, are also required to adhere to specific regulations. It's important to know these regulations and ensure you buy compliant tape.

  • Available dimensions and colors of retro reflective tape - The dimensions and colors of reflective tape play a significant role in the selection process. Certain widths are dictated by necessity, while others are outlined by regulation. In general, reflective tape is available in widths ranging from 1/4 inch to 48 inches wide, with the most common widths being 1”, 2”, 4”. In case you require a thin tape for a particular application, there are options available with varying thickness.

  • Many applications have specific colors that are standardized. Listed below are the colors that reflective tape is available in, and the general use or meaning of the color.

  • White - most common color. Brightest of all the colors, regardless of type.

    Fluorescent Lime - popular color for vehicle chevrons.

    Yellow - popular color that designates caution.

    Red - a popular color used to indicate danger or stop.

    Orange or Fluorescent Orange - designated for emergencies, caution, or work zones.

    Blue - designates caution or fire hydrants.

    Green - indicates a safe zone or approval to enter.

    Black - is a highly popular color for a variety of shadow and stealth uses, often seen in Police Car graphics.

  • Installation and removal of reflective tape - Installation if normally a simple peel and stick process. Hinging the end of a tape, bending it back, peeling, and then pressing on can help make straight stripes. Reflective tapes tend to adhere very well, making them difficult to remove. So to remove reflective tape, heat first with a hair dryer to soften the adhesive. Then peel gently and remove any residue with an adhesive remover like Goo Gone.

  • Maintenance and cleaning - Maintenance and cleaning are also important to factor in prior to purchase. You want to ensure the requirements match your abilities. Some tapes may require regular cleaning with a damp cloth, while others may need only dusting. Cleaning is essential to keeping the reflectivity of the tape, so this is critical information to have.


Reflective tape serves many functions, elevating visibility and guaranteeing safety in a variety of situations. It comes in various types and colors to meet diverse needs. Whether you require engineer-grade tape for plotter cutting, tapes with stretch and conformability, SOLAS for maritime applications, DOT tape for sizable trucks, specialized tape for gate arms or reflective tape for railroad cars, Reflective Inc. provides a thorough selection for every purpose.

Discover our wide array of products, offering choices in size, color, and tape type, at Stop by today to find the ideal reflective tape solution for your requirements.