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The Definitive Guide to Protective Mailers

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cushioned mailers - aka bubble mailers, padded mailers or protective mailers.

The shipping products you use impact your costs, the environment, how much real estate you need, how goods arrive, your customer's first physical impression of your company and certainly your customer's experience with your brand. We recently launched a recycled poly bubble mailer line, and have had recycled paper padded mailer for quite some time - and are struck by how frequently we get questions on them. This guide aims to help you navigate this world of cushioned mailers.

Already know you need a padded or bubble mailer? If so, order free samples of our Padded Mailers or Bubble Mailers today!

What are Protective Mailers?
What types of products can I ship in protective mailers?
When are Protective Mailers better than corrugated boxes? When are shipping boxes better?
When are Protective Mailers better than “Flat Mailers”? When are Flat Mailers better?
What Protective Mailer options are out there? Which are most eco-friendly?
How do your Poly Bubble Mailers compare with your Paper Padded Mailers?
How do I find the right size bubble mailer?

What are Protective Mailers?

Protective mailers - aka bubble mailers, padded mailers, cushioned mailers - are just that, mailers with cushion / padding on the inside. This padding serves two purposes. First, it offers some protection. Second, it enables the mailer to hold its shape, regardless of what it contains. If you put a small box of jewelry or a vial of essential oil in a flat poly mailer or a paper envelope, it is less protected and therefore more exposed to damage as the mailer is thrown around by shippers and the sides of the mailer will collapse around the shape. Why is this bad? UPS, FedEx and USPS sort and ship tons of packages daily, and they do so with a lot of machining and scanning involved in the process. A poorly filled poly mailer with flimsy or flat spots can get caught in or misread by machinery. This can lead to errors, delays, damages or even returns to sender on the products you ship out.

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What types of products can I ship in protective mailers?

The list is endless. Consider protective mailers for apparel, hats, wallets, purses, sunglasses, skincare, essential oils, cosmetics, jewelry, books, prints, stationary, and more.

When considering whether or not something can be shipped in a bubble mailer, consider the following: Is it relatively lightweight? Heavy items (like candles or large bottles of shampoo) ship best in boxes. But lightweight items like sunglasses or lipstick or t-shirts do well in bubble mailers. Is it relatively flat? It is hard to fit a bulky item - like a shoebox - in a bubble mailer.

For items like this, we recommend shipper boxes, or (in some cases) a poly mailer, which is flexible enough to more readily fit and wrap around the bulky item than a protective mailer is. Will it fit in an available cushioned mailer size you can find? If you are shipping a large quilt or a large set of towels, bubble mailers that can fit are not readily available. Items like this that are large, soft and can fully fill out a mailer would work really well in a poly mailer. Is it very fragile? Yes, these mailers are “protective” but they aren’t designed for highly fragile items. Shipping easy to break glass vials or glass picture frames or a high cost electronic item? Stick with corrugated boxes, which you can pad with void fill, to ensure your item arrives in great condition.

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When are Protective Mailers better than corrugated boxes? When are shipping boxes better?

Many ecommerce businesses are shifting from sending their goods via boxes to protective mailers. Why? Largely due to cost and operational simplicity. Protective mailers are less expensive and cheaper to ship (to your facility and for you to ship out to your customers). With boxes, you have to put them together and tape them up, a process that is typically more time consuming than simply filling a bubble mailer with goods, sealing it shut and adding a shipping label.

Shipping boxes, on the other hand, offer better protection and (in our opinion) presentation. You just can’t beat the customer experience of receiving a beautifully branded tab locking or literature mailer (aka “presentation style”) box, which makes the #unboxing experience feel like a birthday gift. Additionally, shipping boxes give more “three dimensional space, are stronger and offer more protective than a cushioned mailer, especially when custom inserts or void fill are added. As such, anything that is fragile, bulky or heavy should be sent in a box over a mailer of any sort. Finally, boxes work well when each package that goes out the door has very different contents. With the right sized shipping boxes, your fulfillment team can use the same packaging for each order (an approach that is unlikely to work with bubble mailers).

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When are Protective Mailers better than “Flat Mailers”? When are Flat Mailers better?

By “flat mailers” we are referring to paper and poly based mailers with no cushioning. They therefore have no protection and are flimsier and don’t hold their shape. Flat mailers are less expensive than protective mailers, again both the cost to purchase and the cost of shipping them to you, and for you to ship them to your customers. They are significantly thinner than their cushioned counter parts, making shipping and storage far more cost and environmentally efficient.

As described above, flat mailers fall short compared to protective mailers when the items being shipped can’t fill out the mailer itself. A tube of lipstick can’t fill out a mailer and would need a bubble mailer (or a box). A t-shirt, on the other hand, can be folded to fit perfectly in a poly mailer and fully fill it out.

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What Protective Mailer options are out there? Which are most eco-friendly?

There are three basic categories of bubble mailers and within each you can find varying levels of “eco-friendliness.”

Fully poly bubble mailers. These are made with a poly exterior and a poly interior / bubble layer. Typically they are made with a combination of HDPE #2 and LDPE #4 plastic and (unless they have foil or metallised plastic lining, which a small set do) can be recycled wherever grocery bags are accepted. Currently, the vast majority of poly bubble mailers have no recycled content and are made with only virgin material.

EcoEnclose is proud to have recently released a line of bubble mailers that are all made with at least 32.6% recycled content. These are the most eco-friendly mailers on the market. In addition to their recycled content, they have a dual peel and seal and tear strip for reusability, are 100% recyclable and are Made in America.

Bubble mailers are complex to manufacture and the construction and sealing process is extremely sensitive to temperature and melting points, and highly partial to the purity and consistency of virgin content. It took us a long time to get to this level of recycled content, but we’ve learned a lot, and are moving forward from here, constantly pushing to up recycled content levels with each iteration, with a goal of eventually getting to 100% recycled content.

If you're been on the lookout for eco-friendly bubble mailers, you may have found other recycled bubble mailer options. As we developed our own recycled bubble mailer, we dug into these options, and learned that their claims can be vague.

If you see a recycled mailer that claims 5%, 10% and 30% recycled content, it is likely the case that “up to X% of the outer layer of the mailer” is made with recycled content. If this is the case, it would mean that the outer layer has an arbitrary amount of recycled content in it, based on what the manufacturer had as scrap from their recent production runs. More than likely, the bubble and capping layers (internal) of the bubble mailer are made with only virgin poly. Given this, a mailer stating 30% recycled content would have between 0% to 16% recycled content (when looking at the entire mailer) - and you wouldn’t be able to know the exact recycled content in the particular bag you purchase and get.

When looking for recycled bubble mailers, we recommend asking suppliers for a breakdown of recycled content by layer within their mailers. Confirm that the recycled content is consistent and is verified, and consider asking them where their product is manufactured and where the recycled inputs come from. This may sound like overkill, and we know that companies aren’t typically trying to make misleading claims! They are often just taking the information they receive from their supply chain at face value without asking hard questions. Because the supply chain for most items (especially packaging) starts in Asia, it is often impossible for them to verify claims. Finally, while the Federal Trade Commissions has great guidelines for Green Marketing, there aren’t really certifying bodies that verify recycled content claims (in the same way there are for things like Certified Organic and Certified Compostable). It is up to consumers to ask these hard questions so we can ensure sustainability innovation is truly that - forward progress - rather than greenwashing.

There are also a very small set of degradable or “oxo-biodegradable” bubble mailers. We have shied away from these as we’ve evolved our product line and our own thinking as it relates to sustainable packaging. This is both because these mailers are made with virgin material and because claims of biodegradability and degradability are misleading and can lead consumers to take the wrong actions when they are deciding how to responsibly dispose of their goods. For more detail on our research and analysis on biodegradable plastic, check out our article - Paper Versus Plastic (versus Bio Plastic).

Paper outer and poly interior bubble mailers. These are a fairly common packaging solution, and chances are, you’ve received many items you’ve purchased online in one of these.

Again, the majority of these mailers are made with fully virgin content, however, it is not uncommon to find options with 25% to even 100% recycled content in the outer paper layer. In fact, some have 95% post consumer waste in the outer layer!

This is exciting to see and we certainly see these as an eco-conscious option. However, because of the dual materials used in these mailers, they are not recyclable. What’s worse, most customers THINK they are curbside recyclable because the exterior is paper - leading to contamination at recycling facilities.

Paper padded mailers. These are paper based through and through. Again, many are made with only virgin paper, but more and more, you can find options made with 5% to 100% recycled content.

EcoEnclose carries a line of Padded Mailers that are made with 100% recycled content, of which 25% is post consumer. We adore our padded mailer line. They are made with renewable and recycled material, they are 100% curbside recyclable, and they are aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, unlike our Recycled Poly Bubble Mailers, they can be custom branded at low quantities of just 500. But while it is easy to assume paper is always better than plastic, that isn’t necessarily true.

There is no perfect eco-winner when comparing a recycled poly mailer with a recycled paper mailer, and much has to do with your own brand, beliefs and your consumer’s likely recycling habits. Check out our detailed blog post that compares eco poly bubble mailers with eco paper padded mailers.

In case you prefer visuals to reading, here’s a handy infographic that sums up the eco qualities of the above protective mailer options.



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How do your Poly Bubble Mailers compare with your Paper Padded Mailers?

For more detail on the question of which protective mailer to use - poly bubble mailers or padded mailers - check out our detailed blog post on this topic. EcoEnclose padded mailers are paper-based mailers that - like bubble mailers - have a layer of padding and protection inside. There are a few eco advantages to these padded mailers. First, they are made with 100% recycled paper, and over 25% post-consumer recycled content. Music to our ears!

Additionally, custom printed padded mailers are available at relatively low volumes of 500 units or more. Finally, they are more easily recyclable, because all curbside recycling programs accept them. As an added bonus, they are also compostable! We also love their kraft look and earthy appeal.

But, our 32% recycled bubble mailers do have some important advantages, depending on your operation and what you are shipping. First, they are weather proof, on that small chance your package ends up outside in a rain storm while its waiting on a porch. Second, they are lighter and more compact than padded mailers.

Comparing two of these mailers - a 8.5 x 10.75" bubble mailer size and an 8.5 x 11" padded mailer size: The bubble mailer weighs 0.8 oz and the padded mailer weighs 2.2 oz A case of these bubble mailers holds 100 units and weighs 5 lbs. A case of these padded mailers holds 100 units and weighs 20 lbs. A single pallet can hold 8,000 bubble mailers and 2,400 padded mailers These differences result in improved costs and reduced environmental impact of shipping mailers to your operation, and then shipping your products out to customers.

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How do I find the right size bubble mailer?

Some mailers, like our recycled bubble mailers, that have a seam around it can be described be either their “end-to-end” product dimensions or their “usable space” dimensions (illustrated by the below image). EcoEnclose names and describes our bubble mailers by their usable space. So our 6.5”x8.75” recycled bubble mailer can safely fit an item that is 6.5”x8.75”.



That is not the case with all bubble mailer providers and we encourage you to look for usable space dimensions any time you purchase a mailer with a seam, as illustrated above. It is also important to note that the right to left usable space dimension will decrease if you are packing a thick product. For example, a magazine of 6.5”x8.75” is likely to fit in this mailer perfectly. However, if you are packing a 1000 page book, you’ll end up having less usable space since you’re filling the depth of the mailer out more.

We recommend laying your items out and measuring their length, height and depth and seeking out mailer sizes that meet or exceed these dimensions. In some cases, sizing can be tough, and no one wants to buy a case of mailers only to find that they don’t work! We recommend ordering Free Samples of the mailers and various sizes you are considering first to ensure they work well for your needs, before placing an order.