Penetrating Sealers Are Like a Fluoride Treatment for Your Teeth....

Posted by The Concrete Sealer Guy on Mar 17th 2021

One of the most asked questions we get from customers is, "How do penetrating sealers actually work?" With most penetrating sealers being invisible and sometimes hard to visually confirm they are working as intended, we find that customers are often confused on how penetrating concrete sealers actually work and the actual benefits they provide. For most customers, their only frame of reference for penetrating sealers is topical sealers/ coatings because they are more commonplace, due to previous use by customers, or the result of topical sealers/ coatings being similar enough in many ways to paint that people more easily understand these types of products. Most people easily grasp that topical sealers/ coatings adhere to the top of a cementitious surface because they are visible and can be seen adhering to a surface much like paint. Most people generally understand (at least when explained to them) that topical sealers/ coatings as a general rule provide protection that is often superior to penetrating sealers because they form a film/ membrane/ coating on top of a surface that physically blocks contaminants from coming into contact with a surface and absorbing into a surface and thus causing harm. With topical sealers/ coatings visible to people, most customers can easily tell when a topical sealer/ coating is applied due to the surface's appearance being changed or altered by imparting a gloss (ex. high gloss, low gloss, satin finish, or matte finish) or introducing a color. Most people can also relate to topical sealers/ coatings changing the surface texture by reducing the traction coefficient because a surface may be slippery when wet.

When people are introduced to a new concept, sometimes the best way of explaining something is by way of a good example or analogy. With that said, we believe a penetrating sealer for concrete has many things in common with a fluoride treatment for teeth. This example may seem corny but below are many similarities or parallels that exist between the two which hopefully will allow people to better understand what penetrating sealers are, how they work, and what benefits they offer.

  • Both offer invisible protection at the microscopic level by penetrating and absorbing into the top layer of a surface but are not film forming. They operate just beneath and within a surface and not on top of a surface.
  • Both are a best practice preventative measure to aid in strengthening the top layer of a surface and/ or by resisting, inhibiting, reducing, slowing down, or making a surface more resistant to contaminants that can lead to deterioration and decay.
  • Both are professional treatments that offer many great benefits as far as protecting, preserving, and extending the life of surfaces.
  • Both are well worth their cost and investment and are far less expensive than the cost of having to repair or replace a surface.
  • Both are a significant weapon in the overall arsenal in providing meaningful partial protection (vs. absolute or full) against deterioration or decay of a surface by adding to the integrity of the top part of a surface.
  • Both are backed by a sizable body of evidence, research/ scientific studies, decades of use, actual test data, etc. that have established the clear benefits of both surface treatments.
  • Both are highly recommended by professional organizations within their industry (ADA for fluoride treatments and ACI and National/ State level Ready Mixed Concrete Associations for penetrating concrete sealers).
  • Both are only one measure of surface protection. Just as people have to practice other measures of good dental care (ex. brushing, flossing, using mouth rinse, avoiding certain foods/ beverages, etc.), the same is true for following other measures of good concrete care (ex. sweeping, hosing down, power washing, cleaning up spills immediately, limiting use of salts/ deicing chemicals, guarding against exposure to harmful chemicals, avoiding harsh cleaners, using other measures for protection (rugs. mats, guards, spill trays, etc.), repairing and filling cracks, etc.
  • Both are highly effective treatments but they each can have their efficacy reduced by existing deterioration, poor care, lack of maintenance, environmental factors, etc.
  • Both can still allow surface staining as they are not topical treatments and contaminants can still come into direct contact with a surface.
  • Both do not discolor a surface if properly applied but they can result in discoloration of surface due to improper or over application.
  • Both require periodic reapplication to a surface as needed and are not one time only treatments.

So, where do penetrating sealers fit in? While topical sealers/ coatings can provide excellent protection and also cosmetically improve the appearance of a surface, they generally suffer many drawbacks though including high cost (especially for professionally installed systems), high failure rate (hot tire pickup, peeling, chipping, delaminating, etc.), significant floor preparation (acid etching, diamond grinding, etc.), difficult to install and not always DIY friendly, maintenance headaches with frequent repairs, etc. As a result, many people will often turn to penetrating sealers as a more practical and cost effective option to topical sealers/ coatings because penetrating sealers overcome most, if not all, the drawbacks of topical sealers/ coatings. Penetrating sealers generally are pocket book friendly, DIY friendly, require limited surface preparation, are easier to use and install, and they never fail in terms of hot tire pickup, peeling, chipping, delaminating, etc. Penetrating sealers also do not normally alter a surface's appearance and instead provide a natural look. They also do not typically change the traction coefficient (ie. not slippery when wet) for a surface. With penetrating sealers operating within a surface instead of on top of a surface, the lifespan for most penetrating sealers is also generally longer than that of most topical sealers/ coatings.

When deciding whether to go with a penetrating sealer vs. a topical sealer/ coating for a project, one important consideration though is that penetrating sealers generally do not provide the level of protection of topical sealers/ coatings because they only offer partial or limited protection like that of a fluoride treatment for teeth as noted above. The reason for this is that penetrating sealers do not form a film, membrane, or coating on a surface. Instead, they penetrate or absorb into a surface, chemically react with it, and then create a new chemical solid that serves as a breathable barrier just below the top part of a surface being sealed. With the top part of a surface being exposed, contaminants (ex. water, moisture, mold/ mildew, salts, dirt, dust, grime, oil, etc.) and the elements can still come into direct contact with surfaces treated with penetrating sealers. The harm done by contaminants and the elements can be slowed down, lessened, or mitigated with penetrating sealers but not totally eliminated or prevented. Despite their limitations though, penetrating sealers can play an incredibly vital role in protecting and preserving concrete surfaces by strengthening the top part of a surface, guarding the top part of a surface from contaminants, protecting a surface against weathering and the elements, slowing down surface deterioration, or, in some cases, by offering some measure of stain resistance. Penetrating sealers work particularly well for customers who are looking for a sealer option with a good price/ performance balance, who keep a clean surface to begin with, have a good maintenance program, and employ some other good common sense measures in areas where added protection (rugs, mats, guards, etc.) is needed. For an overview of different types of penetrating sealers, you can click here.