Those of us who enjoy tinkering in the world of vintage Macs often have to deal with an unfortunate consequence of the passage of time that leads a Mac to be called “vintage” – the yellowing (and even browning) of part or all of the Mac’s case, monitor or keyboard/mouse. At times, this can be minor, at times major, but it is always an unfortunate blemish on a fine piece of older technology.
A little Google’ing around will reveal that the yellowing is the consequence of UV light (usually from prolonged exposure to sunlight) interacting with a fire retardant compound integrated into the plastic of the case – usually bromine and like chemicals.
Happily for vintage computing enthusiasts, the yellowing need not be permanent. The good folks at the Retr0bright project (www.retr0bright.com) have come up with a solution that they have named eponymously “Retr0bright”, which can be used to reverse the yellowing. Fundamentally, Retr0bright is a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and an “Oxy” type laundry booster, often coupled with one or more additional ingredients such as Xanthan gum or arrowroot to make the mixture a paintable gel. The result is painted onto yellowed plastic, which is then exposed to UV light for several hours (typically simple sunlight), and the reported results have been quite spectacular.
So, where can you buy Retr0bright? The quick answer is “nowhere”. If you do find it for sale, which you may, you should not buy it. Why is this? Again the good folks at Retr0bright have the answer, and I have reproduced it below:
“Hydrogen Peroxide is classified as a hazardous substance and, as such, is not accepted by many postal services and couriers without declarations and special handling procedures. It also has other uses besides hair bleaching and Retr0bright, so we strongly advise caution on where and how much of this you buy.
This site’s founders and authors do not sell Retr0bright for these very reasons and do not endorse or recommend any resale of premixed Retr0bright. If you see it for sale, it is not with our blessing or consent and we strongly advise caution: if you order some for delivery and it leaks in transit, you and the supplier could have some interesting questions asked of you.”
As a result, you will find lots of DIY Retr0bright “recipes” floating around the web, but not a lot of places that will actually sell you the finished product. To be safe about this, you pretty much have to mix up your Retr0bright yourself.
I was about to try just that when one day I stumbled upon an article somewhere out there on the web (regrettably I have lost the link now) that suggested that Sally Beauty Supply (www.sallybeauty.com) had a hair product (40 Volume Creme) whose composition was so similar to Retr0bright that it could be used quite effectively for the same purpose.
Google Maps revealed the location of a local Sally Beauty Supply outlet and armed with this knowledge, I navigated to the store and picked up a bottle of this hopefully magical elixir. If you live in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico or the UK, you too should be able to find a local Sally Beauty Supply store – if not, you may be able to order their products online.
This being my first experience with Retr0bright, or any similar product, I decided to try it out on a “disposable” piece of discolored vintage Mac hardware – an old, and very yellowed, keyboard. I did this just in case the 40 Volume Creme Retr0bright stand-in failed miserably and further discolored, or even worse, damaged, the target plastic. This is what the keyboard looked like at the start of this experiment.
I laid the keyboard out on my back deck on a nicely sunny weekend afternoon and with a simple low cost paintbrush, I applied a light coating of the 40 Volume Creme to just over one half of the keyboard, and also to the area that had the brightly multi colored Apple logo (to see if it would impact the colors in any way). I wasn’t particularly careful as I painted – some of the creme got in between the keys and I did my best to brush it out, but the job was anything but perfect.
I left the keyboard out in the sun and busied myself with other matters. About an hour and half later, I went back out to check on it. Wow! There was clear and dramatic reduction in the yellowing in the painted areas. The results were so gratifying that I got the 40 Volume Creme out again and painted the remaining parts of the keyboard. Again, I left the keyboard out in the afternoon sun and returned to my prior task.
Two hours or so later, as the sun was starting to wane in the late afternoon sky, I went back out on the deck again and was amazed to see a keyboard that looked almost new. Except for the edges, where I had forgotten to apply the creme, the yellowing was pretty much completely gone. There were some very minor yellow streaks, where the paint brush had not provided complete coverage (I will try a foam applicator next time), but the result can only be described as amazing. Here is the “after” picture:
I donned rubber gloves (Hydrogen Peroxide is nasty stuff, and getting it on your skin is not recommended; hence the gloves), got some paper towel, and brushed down the keyboard to remove the residue of the creme. I was left with a totally transformed keyboard! What had earlier in that day been only a “disposable” bit of kit was now a clean and valuable vintage keyboard. Of course I will take a few more runs at this particular keyboard, to get all the edges as well, but the result was simply stunning. Here are the “before” and “after” pictures, side by side:
So there you have it. If you have a valuable but yellowed piece of vintage computing equipment that you would like to clean up, I can wholeheartedly recommend Sally Beauty Supply 40 Volume Creme as a wonderfully effective “get the yellow out” solution. Happy painting and Good Luck!
Thanks a million for sharing this information. I just recently stumbled across an old Amiga blog post discussing retr0bright but hadn’t had much time to do any research on it since then. I recently purchased a Mac SE/30 and Mac Plus from someone an hour or so away who has been the sole owner of each one since they first bought it from a store. They are in excellent shape apart from the yellowing (especially the keyboards!). I’m going to give this a careful and cautious whirl and hope for the best. I plan on upgrading each vintage Mac as much as possible just as well as it never hurts to do so and learn something along the way. 🙂
Please. Post what it’s made of so that I can find an alternative for us Europeans!
Thanks a lot.
I purchased 12% Oxi Kallos, as you can see from this link, https://68kmla.org/forums/index.php?/topic/8747-de-yellowing-compact-mac-plastics/ he chap who is from the Netherlands used it on his vintage SE/30.
Most of these hair products have Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) as the main ingredient but because it as so porous, like water really, the retrobrite adds ingredients to make the H2O2 thicker otherwise you would be submerging all the plastics in 3%-6% H2O2.
So yes, most of these products should work as their main ingredient is H2O2, some thickening agents and possibly some catalysers that speed the H2O2 process up.
I forgot to mention that some people wrap the plastics in saran wrap to keep the chemistry from drying, I have hear of other people spraying a little bit of water (depending on how hot the day is), yet others just keep a watch and reapply another thin coat.
I would also venture to say that you don’t necessarily need a super bright day — doesn’t UV light travel even on cloudy days? Maybe I am wrong.
Oh and finally, I saw someone on use H2O2 with no sunlight (UV light), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mwJPtwXkmA&t=20s. She has a few videos on restoring her old macs and in one of her videos she claims you don’t need UV but it take 24 hours or so to moderately lighten the case but not to its full restored hue.
Anyway, I hope these help.