Definitive Guide to Protective Mailers

Everything you need to know about protective cushioned 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 your customer’s experience with your brand. We recently launched a recycled poly bubble mailer line and have had recycled paper padded mailers 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 - 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.

For example, suppose you put a small jewelry box or a vial of essential oil in a flat poly mailer or a paper envelope. In that case, 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 weak or flat spots can get caught in or misread by machinery, leading to errors, delays, damages, or even returns to sender on the products you ship out.

EcoEnclose offers two protective mailers - one paper and one poly - to keep your fragile items in tact during transit.

upcycled 100% recycled paper padded mailer

Padded Paper Mailers

Upcycled newspaper between recycled Kraft paper. Ideal for shipping fragile items. 100% recycled, 20% post-consumer waste.

50% recycled poly bubble mailer

Bubble Poly Mailers

Thin-film recyclable, tear strip for easy opening, second adhesive strip for reuse. 50% recycled, 10% post-consumer waste.

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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, stationery, etc.

When considering whether or not you can ship something in a bubble mailer, consider: Is it relatively lightweight? Heavy items (like candles or large shampoo bottles) ship best in corrugated boxes. But light items like sunglasses, 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. Large and soft items that can fill out a mailer would work well in a poly mailer. Is it very fragile? These mailers are “protective,” but they aren’t designed for highly breakable items. Are you 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 excellent condition.

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When are protective mailers better than corrugated boxes? Conversely, when are shipping boxes better?

Many eCommerce businesses are shifting from sending their goods via boxes to protective mailers. Why? Mainly 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, which is typically more time-consuming than simply filling a bubble mailer with goods, sealing it shut, and adding a shipping label.

On the other hand, shipping boxes offer better protection and (in our opinion) presentation. You can’t beat the customer experience of receiving a beautifully branded tab locking or literature mailer (aka “presentation style”) box, making the #unboxing experience feel like a birthday gift. Additionally, shipping boxes give more “three-dimensional space, are more robust, and offer more protection than a cushioned mailer, especially when using custom inserts or void fill. You should send anything fragile, bulky, or heavy in a box over any mailer.

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).

Available in a multitude of configurations, every EcoEnclose cardboard box is customized to your specific needs so your unique products fit perfectly. Not only does this make for an incredible unboxing experience for customers, it is also an added eco-perk. Less empty space in your box means less void fill, if any, is needed.

custom corrugated shipping boxes

Custom Shipping Boxes

Choose your style, size, strength, and branding to create an exceptional unboxing experience. 100% recycled, 95% post-consumer waste.

custom discount shipping boxes

Discount Branded Boxes

Choose from set styles, sizes, and strengths customized with your branding. Discounts help you start your custom packaging journey.

discounted 100% recycled shipping boxes

Discount Blank Boxes

Choose from set styles, sizes, and strengths with no branding. Discounts make it even easier for you to ship sustainably.

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When are protective mailers better than “flat mailers”? Conversely, when are flat mailers better?

By “flat mailers,” we refer 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 shipping them to your customers. In addition, they are significantly thinner than their cushioned counterparts, making shipping and storage far more cost and environmentally efficient.

Flat mailers fall short compared to protective mailers when the items being shipped can’t fill out the mailer itself. For example, 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 fill it out.

EcoEnclose offers seven flat mailers in various materials. 

ivory and gray 100% recycled poly mailers

Poly Mailers

Thin-film recyclable, tear strip for easy opening, second adhesive strip for reuse. 100% recycled, 50% post-consumer waste.

back of 100% recycled paper apparel mailer

Apparel Paper Mailers

Creasing for expandability and premium presentation. Ideal for shipping textiles. 100% recycled, 97% post-consumer waste.

100% recycled waterproof paper mailer

EcoX Paper Mailers

Water, tear, and puncture-resistant paperboard. Ideal for shipping textiles. 100% recycled, 70% post-consumer waste.

back of 100% recycled kraft paper mailer

Kraft Paper Mailers

Lightweight and affordable paper mailers. Ideal for shipping lightweight textiles. 100% recycled, 90% post-consumer waste.

self-sealing recycled rigid paper mailer

Self-Seal Rigid Paper Mailers

Thick 28pt paperboard is ideal for shipping art prints, photos, and documents. 100% recycled, 90% post-consumer waste.

extra rigid recycled paper mailer

Tab-Lock Rigid Paper Mailers

Extra-thick 36 pt paperboard ensures your product does not bend in transit. 100% recycled, 90% post-consumer waste.

reusable mailers for circular shipping

Reusable Fabric Mailers

100% recycled fabric with zipper and snap closures. Designed for multiple uses and recyclability at the end of their useful life.

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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.” There is no perfect eco-winner when comparing a recycled poly mailer with a recycled paper mailer, and much has to do with your brand, beliefs, and your consumer’s likely recycling habits.

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 metalized plastic lining, which a small set does) can be recycled wherever grocery bags are accepted. Currently, most poly bubble mailers have no recycled content and are made with only virgin material.

EcoEnclose is proud to have released a line of bubble mailers made with 50% 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 susceptible 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. We are moving forward from here, constantly pushing up recycled content levels with each iteration to get to 100% recycled content eventually.

You may have found other recycled bubble mailer options if you’re on the lookout for eco-friendly bubble mailers. As we developed our own recycled bubble mailer, we dug into these options and learned that their claims could 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 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 verified, and consider asking them where their product is manufactured. This may sound like overkill, and we know that companies aren’t typically trying to make misleading claims! They often take 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 Commission has excellent guidelines for Green Marketing, there aren’t 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 to ensure sustainability innovation is genuine rather than greenwashing.

Biodegradable Bubble Mailers

We have shied away from biodegradable mailers as we’ve evolved our product line and thinking related to sustainable packaging because these mailers are made with virgin material. Their misleading claims of biodegradability can lead consumers to take the wrong actions when deciding how to dispose of their goods responsibly. For more detail on our research and analysis of biodegradable plastic, explore our research: Bioplastics for eCommerce Packaging.

Paper outer and poly interior bubble mailers are reasonably common packaging solutions, and chances are, you’ve received many items you’ve purchased online in one of these. Most of these mailers are made with entirely virgin content. However, it is not uncommon to find options with 25% to even 100% recycled content in the outer paper layer. Some have 95% post-consumer waste in the outer layer!

This is exciting, 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 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, 100% curbside recyclable, and aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, unlike our 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.

Here’s a handy infographic that sums up the eco qualities of these protective mailer options if you prefer visuals.

Eco Friendly Protective Mailers

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How do your poly bubble mailers compare with your paper padded mailers?

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. Finally, they are more easily recyclable because all curbside recycling programs accept them. As a bonus, they are also compostable! We also love their Kraft look and earthy appeal.

But, our 50% recycled bubble mailers do have some crucial advantages, depending on your operation and what you are shipping. First, they are weatherproof, on that slight chance your package ends up outside in a rainstorm while waiting on a porch. Second, they are lighter and more compact than padded mailers.

Comparing two of these mailers - an 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 has 100 units and weighs 20 lbs. Therefore, 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 them can be described by 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 a 6.5” x 8.75” item.

Bubble Mailer Comparison

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 functional space dimension will decrease if you pack a thick product. For example, a 6.5” x8.75” magazine is likely to fit in this mailer perfectly. However, if you are packing a 1000-page book, you’ll have 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 tricky, 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 to ensure they work well for your needs before placing an order.