The Rough, Gummy Tragedy of NeverWet

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 25 2013 5:45 AM

NeverWet? More Like OftenKindaWet.

The miracle water repellent we’ve all been waiting for is a dud.

In 2011, LancasterOnline, a news website covering Lancaster, Pa., published a story about a seemingly magical invention by a local company. The product was called NeverWet, and it did exactly what its name suggested: When you sprayed the coating on any item, the object would be rendered practically immune to water and other liquids.

In a video accompanying the story, Andy Jones, the president of Ross Nanotechnology, which makes NeverWet, pours chocolate syrup over a white canvas shoe that has been coated with the spray. The syrup slides off the surface, leaving the shoe unstained. He shows how a toilet plunger treated with NeverWet remains dry when you pour water over it, meaning that it stays free of bacteria when you use it. Jones claimed that the spray worked on practically anything, including electronics. "I sprayed my iPhone with NeverWet, submerged it in a foot of water for 30 minutes, took it out and it was good to go,” he told the paper.

There was only one downside to NeverWet—you couldn’t buy it. The company said it was hoping to launch a retail version of NeverWet sometime in early 2012, but that didn’t happen. Anticipation kept growing, with LancasterOnline’s video racking up nearly 5 million views.

Then, a few weeks ago, Ross Nanotechnology announced that NeverWet would soon be available nationally at Home Depot for $20. In another, even more amazing video, the company showed off the retail version’s powers. Among other feats, the spray seemed to make a T-shirt invulnerable to every stain imaginable, including mustard, gravy, and Pepsi.

I ran out to buy NeverWet. I got my hands on it earlier this month, and I’ve tested it on a variety of materials, including shoes, clothes, paper, wood, plastic, cardboard, a keyboard, and a smartphone. And I’m really sorry to have to break it to anyone who’s spent the past couple years waiting for this miracle stuff: NeverWet is mostly a dud.

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In my tests, it did successfully render some items immune to liquids, but not everything, and not nearly to the degree that you see in the company’s demonstrations. The coating didn’t seem to last long, either. I could rub it off glossy surfaces such as glass with my fingers, and on items that get a lot of use—such as shoes—it wore away after a day or two. This might not sound so bad. A product that makes things almost NeverWet or even sometimes NeverWet might still find some practical uses. But that gets to the bigger problem with NeverWet: It damages everything it touches. The coating leaves a frost-colored haze on every surface, and it turns textures rough and faintly gummy. That explains why the shirts and shoes shown in the company’s demos are white; on any other color, NeverWet would look terrible.

NeverWet’s white, gummy haze is a fatal flaw. The whole point of protecting something from water damage is to keep it looking and feeling as good as new. Other than toilet plungers and other cleaning tools, I can’t think of many products whose looks and texture I’d be willing to sacrifice for water resistance. Certainly not my clothes, phone, linens, books, furniture, or photographs. All of these things could one day be ruined by liquids—but if you spray them with NeverWet, you’re just ruining them now instead of (potentially) later.

NeverWet creates a thin “superhydrophobic” layer on a surface. The company hasn’t disclosed what’s in the stuff, but in a technical paper, it explains that the spray works by altering the “contact angle” that water makes with a surface. The higher the angle, the rounder the drops that water forms on the surface, and the less contact area there is for the liquid to adhere to. When water hits a surface coated with NeverWet, it forms drops with a contact angle of nearly 180 degrees—“near perfect spheres,” meaning there’s a very tiny area of contact between the drop and the coated surface. 

You don’t need to understand any of this to use NeverWet. It comes in two spray-paint cans: You spray a base coat, wait 30 minutes, and then spray a top coat and wait another 30 minutes for it to cure. This sounds easy, but I found that the stuff was pretty sensitive to how you spray. If you get too close to your item, you’ll create a very prominent milky texture, but if you get too far, you won’t get a thick enough coat, and then you won’t get much waterproofing. I suspect this accounts for inconsistent results; it seemed to work better when I over-sprayed. The instructions suggest spraying a second coat “if desired,” but because each two-can set is enough to cover only 10 to 15 square feet of surface area, you won’t really want to do that. (I tried to contact NeverWet several times by email and phone to ask about its performance, but I never heard back.)

The first thing I tried NeverWet on was a pair of foam flip-flops that I often use in the yard. NeverWet’s instruction leaflet warns that the product’s “Flat Frosted Clear appearance may cause an item’s color or sheen to change,” but there are lots of weasel words there (“may,” “clear”) that suggest that the difference will be minor. After spraying, waiting, and spraying and waiting again, I was surprised to see that it was anything but minor. Imagine your shoes covered in a fresh layer of volcanic ash. That’s what NeverWet looks like.

But they were just flip-flops, so I didn’t care that much, as long as they would never get wet. Then I turned on the hose and aimed it at the shoes and … they got wet. While water beaded off the inner sole, the more porous sidewall and fabric toe-holder-thing (you know what I’m talking about, right?) didn’t appear to be protected at all and got soaked. NeverWet fail No. 1.

Most of my other tests went just as well—which is to say, NeverWet often protected some part of an item but not the whole thing, and not for long. It performed best on flat, relatively nonporous surfaces. A piece of wood treated with NeverWet did remain dry when I drenched it. If you’ve got a tabletop you want to protect—but whose appearance and texture you don’t care about—then maybe give it a shot. In its demo, the company shows how you can turn a cardboard box into an ice chest by spraying the inside with NeverWet. I attempted the same thing, and while most of the bottom of the box became waterproof, the side panels didn’t.

NeverWet was most challenged by fabrics. Another way to say that is: It basically didn’t work on them at all. I sprayed it on a pair of gardening gloves, then put my gloved hand in water. My hand got wet. I sprayed it on a microfiber cleaning cloth, then splashed water on it. The cloth got wet. I sprayed it on a T-shirt, then poured water and ketchup all over it. The shirt got stained.

I wondered if I was missing something; maybe I wasn’t spraying a thick enough coat, or letting it cure long enough, or perhaps the fabric was too porous? Then I carefully read the can’s instructions once more, and saw a note to go to the company’s Web page for more info. On that page, I found this warning: “Not intended to be applied to electronic devices or clothing.”

Huh. Note that in the two viral videos, NeverWet’s reps repeatedly show off its utility on clothing and electronics. In one, an employee takes apart an iPhone, sprays the inside with the NeverWet, then dunks the phone in a water. But the company seems afraid to claim that it can protect your valuables, so its fine print walks back those videos. “Can NeverWet be used on electronics?” asks the product’s FAQ. “No, NeverWet should not be used on electronics.”

I concur. When I sprayed NeverWet on an old smartphone, the device was so thickly covered with the rubber stuff that you couldn’t see anything on the screen. (That’s why, in the video, they have to take apart the phone and spray the inside.) Even despite the thick coating, NeverWet didn’t protect the phone: It survived an initial dunk in water, but water clearly seeped into the device, and after a half an hour or so, the phone froze. A wireless keyboard was luckier—NeverWet seemed to protect it from the water I poured all over it. On the other hand, the keyboard was covered in NeverWet, which meant that its keys felt like sticky sandpaper. Well, I guess I was warned not to use it on electronics.

I hate having to tell you all this, by the way. I’m very sad. If it worked as well as the videos suggest, NeverWet would be a wonder. The world needs something like it. For now, though, NeverMind.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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