Retr0bright, How to Turn a Yellow Gameboy White Again: the EASY Way!

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If you grew up in the nineties, chances are you saw monitor casings, game consoles and keyboards turn from a clean matte white to a drab brown-ish yellow color.

Maybe you still have some electronics from your childhood, that once rocked a pristine white color, but turned yellow over the years, as it sat in your attic. Retro collectors are all too familiar with this phenomenon, from Gameboy, to Nintendo, to Playstation and so on.

However, fret not! There is a remedy, dubbed "Retr0bright". I'll explain its history a bit further ahead, but consider it a recipe of ingredients that can be applied to yellowed plastics. There's a bit more involved, of course, more about that in the guide.

There's different approaches to reverse the yellowing effect and I have tried two. In this Instructable, I will be focusing on the easiest, personally tried-and-tested method.

I have tried the classical recipe and have since moved on to another solution that was a lot easier in terms of getting the ingredients and the execution. This isn't necessarily the best solution, but it is one that has worked multiple times over for me. YMMV!

Disclaimer!

We're dealing with chemicals here. Don't do anything stupid, wear gloves, protect your eyes, etc. By following this guide, you take full responsibility for your actions and well within the legal bounds of wherever you are. Stay safe!

(update 11th of July, 2019: cleaned up the guide a bit)

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Step 1: Science!

This is secondary information on the source of the yellowing effect. If you're not interested and want to get to work, skip ahead to the next step!

What’s the science behind this?

There’s a chemical (Br – Bromine) in the plastic, which makes plastic fire-deterrent. Fire needs oxygen and Bromine interferes with the process that provides oxygen to fire. Over time, when exposing the plastic to both sunlight and oxygen, the yellowing occurs. This component was very often used in consumer's electronics, back in the '90ies and '80ies to render it safe from catching fire.

So, if you’ve been keeping your Gameboy stored in a dry, safe, dark place, chances are it’ll be nice and pristine. If you’ve been leaving it out in the sun, it probably got an unpleasant, urine-y-looking, yellow tan. This is why you'll see a lot of front shells that have been damaged by UV radiation, where's the back shells remained relatively unharmed.

If your unit has turned yellow, open up the battery cover and look inside the battery compartment. That is/should be the original color your trusted little unit had when it came out of the box.

"Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah science!"

Retr0bright effectively reverses this process. To be clear: Retr0bright is NOT a product you can buy over the counter, or on-line, it's a chemical recipe that can be found on the internet.

Some years ago, vintage console enthusiasts (Macintosh, Amiga, IBM, etc.), scientists and fan communities joined forces into researching what causes yellowing and how to reverse it. They found that Hydrogen Peroxide and an activator called tetra acetyl ethylene diamine (or TAED), did the trick.

They coined the chemical mixture, “retr0bright” Everyone knows hydrogen peroxide as a disinfectant or a way to bleach hair, so you’d think it’s easy to come by, whereas the tetr-terra-...tetris pterydactyl dynamite, is pretty exotic to source. At least, not from my corner of Europe.
However! I’m afraid it’s the other way around. TAED is found in Oxy, a laundry detergent usually spotted in pushy telemarketer ads and therefore pretty easy to find. The hydrogen peroxide needed, is of a much higher concentration than we can get from stores, ie. 10% to 15%. Most household applications for hydrogen peroxide is diluted with water, down to 3%~5%. The simple reason for that is that higher concentrations of peroxide will SEVERLY BURN YOUR SKIN.
Use plastic gloves, when handling chemicals, please. If you combine the hydrogen peroxide with the TAED as an activator and expose the components to ultra-violet radiation (UV-A), the process will reverse after a few hours. I'm no scientist so I don't claim to fully understand how that happens, but it is useful to at least research some of the elements we're trying to work with.

There's two types of recipe's for creating a batch of Retr0bright:

Liquid vs gel

The liquid mixture is easiest to make, but less cost-effective, as it requires you to submerge the components entirely into the liquid. Seeing as how the hydrogen peroxide is fairly difficult to get from stores in anything over 5%, chances are you’ll need to get it from a pharmacy, in advance. In some places, it’s illegal to buy high concentrations. Trying to buy it online is fairly useless, as most suppliers or courier services don’t ship hazardous chemicals, unless at heavy fees. Oxy, however, you can get right from the store.
The gel variant also uses the same concentration of peroxide and oxy as an activator, but adds a few other things to make into a sticky gel, making it easier to apply. Components like that could be xanthan gum and glycerine. Xanthan gum is also pretty difficult to find (for me), but most eco-minded stores sell them as an alternative food thickening agent (I bet there's a better word for that) for salad dressings and whatnot.

This is haaaarrrddd :(

I know, getting these components can be tedious, especially if your local law prohibits you from getting high percentage hydrogen peroxide.

That's why I'm posting this instructable, because there is a much, much easier way, that yields the same effects, has the same components and is much easier to get.

Step 2: Prerequisites

Safety!

We'll be using hydrogen peroxide in a fairly high concentration. Getting this stuff on your skin will give you a pretty annoying chemical burn. Here's a picture of me after I got some on me.

1. Hairdressing peroxide

Seeing as how the retr0bright gel variant is the most cost-effective way of going about this, we need a gel-like substance that contains hydrogen peroxide in a concentration of about 10% and and activating component. Luckily, there is such a thing and it turns out it's even a fairly normal consumer product found in beauty stores.

What we'll be needing, is hairdressing peroxide, but I've found this under several names. Looking for this product and being sure you're looking at the right product can be a bit confusing, but if you stick to these terms, you'll find what you need:

  • "Hairdressing hydrogen for bleaching hair"
  • "Hydrogen peroxide hair volumer"
  • "Hydrogen peroxide developer"
  • "Hydrogen peroxide hair crème"

Look for a hydrogen peroxide concentration of at least 10%.

Now, if you're pale, bumbling male like myself, you probably won't feel like walking into a beauty store, asking for a product like this. Thank the good Internet gods for online shopping!

I found two 1L bottles for about € 12 each shipped and went for "Wella Welloxon Perfect 12% 40 VOL" at the time of writing this guide.

Is it really the same stuff?

Yes. The two components we're looking for is hydrogen peroxide and an activator (TAED). The hairdressing peroxide has hydrogen peroxide in a strength we need (10'ish percent) and the activator is sodium perphosphate.

To get the gel-like texture, the retr0bright mixture uses glycerine and xanthan gum, but in this case, something like cetostearyl alcohol makes creates the emulsion and acts as a viscosity-increasing (that's the better word!) agent.

The rest is pointless to us, but won't affect the plastic.

2. Cling wrap

To prevent the gel from drying too quickly an unevenly, it helps to envelop a gel-ed up component in cling wrap. This offers a few extra advantages during the UV-exposure part of the guide:
- The component can be handled more easily when rotating all surfaces
- The gel is shielded from dust, hairs, or pollen.

Any other clear plastic works fine, as long as it doesn't block any UV rays.

3. Paint brush

We'll need to apply the gel and doing it by hand is a bad idea. A generic, cheap paint brush will do fine. Even an old toothbrush works, in a pinch.

4. Protect your skin and eyes

I've outlined this before, but I'll say it again: the hydrogen peroxide can leave a chemical burn that manifests as a white patch on your skin that can't be washed off. Please take notice of this and wear some gloves. Eye-protections certainly isn't a luxury!

5. UV-radiation

Once everything is gel'ed and wrapped up, the components will need to work on their tan, by being exposed to UV radiation. Luckily, there's a big UV source in the sky that's freely available, every day. The sun! UV radiation can pass through the cloud covers so you don't need a sunny day. Obviously, the best and quickest results came from sunny spring days.

Avoid hot surfaces! We don't need a hot, sunny day. A sunny day will suffice, even a cloudy one. If you're stuck in a rainy country/season, you could look into getting a UV-light source. Make sure to go for UV-A light sources.

6. Patience

On average, I sunbathe retr0brighted components for about 4 hours. From my experience, that's the sweet spot when we're talking about duration. Waiting any longer didn't really yield better results and increases the risk of drying out the gel, scarring the plastic.

Cutting it short, affects the result negatively.

Step 3: Getting to Work

This step is pretty straightforward. Take apart the Gameboy and make sure the components are clean. This is pretty important, as any dirt or grime will adversely affect the process. Check out my other disassembly instructable on how to take apart a Gameboy! Be sure to remove stickers or leftover adhesive (from the lens cover!).

Apply the gel in a bit of a pattern (see the first picture), it will allow for an even distribution of the gel. Gameboy shells, especially the back, are ridged and grooved, make sure to get in those.

Use a brush to spread out the gel over the plastic. I find it helps to spread out the cling wrap in advance and lather up a layer of gel on the cling wrap as well.

Lastly, put the shell on the plastic foil and wrap it up nicely and position it in the sun.

Step 4: The Waiting Game...

Lastly, wait it out. Reposition the shells every now and then to make sure every side and angle got a an even amount of sun. You might notice that the gel starts starts foaming. This is to be expected and an indication that the gel is doing what it's supposed to do. Rejoice!

Check in every half hour or so and make sure the gel isn't drying out. You can spread out the gel, through the plastic for improved results.

I'd also advise you to take pictures during the process The results will be quite noticeable, but it sure is exciting to get a before and after picture.

Step 5: Done!

After about 4 hours, put your rubber gloves back on and remove all of the cling wrap and toss it away. Use hot water and your gloves to wash off all the left-over gel. Dry it all off and admire your no-longer-yellow Gameboy!

Step 6: Retrospective

After some trial and error, I've decided that I only retr0bright cases that have some yellow'ing, but aren't too afflicted. I've experienced that very yellow shells take multiple sessions and are a lot more sensitive to scarring. Moreover, they tend to turn yellow again, due to exposure to UV-light, anyway.

Please keep in mind that Retr0bright isn't a fail-safe solution and doesn't do miracles. It does make a helluva difference and can restore some of that former glory.

Have fun!

Be sure to check out my website http://www.retro-grade.net or my facebook page http://www.retro-grade.net.
Update - I've discontinued retro-grade because I simply don't have time for this project anymore. I am keeping this guide alive, so you wonderful souls hopefully get something useful out of this.

Also, if you're trying this yourself, I'd be very interested in your results. Feel free to leave a comment about your experience or even better: a before-and-after-picture?

Constructive comments and/or questions are also very welcome.

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    25 Discussions

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    Eoin-M

    4 years ago

    Would this work on white & grey Lego do you think? I got mine out of the attic a while back and made a big Star Wars diorama in a window. Not long after all my lovely white bricks began to yellow and some of the grey ones too - boo. I've read about this recipe but couldn't find the ingredients easily. It'd be deadly if this works!

    2 replies
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    RetroGradeBEEoin-M

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Hmm, you know, I used to have a big Lego collection as well, but sold it not too long ago. Kudos on the Lego's.
    As for reversing the yellowing effect, I think it will work. If those lego bricks date back to the 80'ies/90'ies, there's a good chance those bricks have bromine and in that case, it's the same UV damage as with Gameboys.

    I did a little research and apparently, lego bricks are composed with a secret recipé. So there's no telling what effect retr0bright might have.

    I'm gonna try and score a few white, yellow'ed bricks and test this for you. I'll let you know the result, but I'll need to get my hands on some specimens, first.

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    Eoin-MRetroGradeBE

    Reply 4 years ago

    Excellent news. Yeah, most of my bricks are from the 80s and 90s alright. I could never bring myself to sell mine and now my son has started playing with it, I'm glad I didn't. I'd love to hear how you get on - if I can get myself together, I'll give it a go on a few testers and report back.

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    IanB145

    3 years ago

    "Retr0bright effectively reverses this process."

    No it doesn't. It just removes the surface staining caused by the leeching bromide. The item will nearly always return to its pre-treated state of yellowing over the course of the next few years.

    Forget the fancy recipes as hydrogen peroxide cream (12% BV) works exactly the same and can be easily purchased from nearly any supermarket or hair salon for as little as $6 per litre.

    4 replies
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    IanJ10IanB145

    Reply 3 years ago

    Bro do you even read? This instructable uses the hairdresser's cream. I also stated it isn't a miracle product.

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    IanB145IanJ10

    Reply 3 years ago

    It's a confusing read as you say that you both use off-the-shelf hydrogen peroxide cream AND that you Retr0bright. Retr0bright infers that you make it yourself, yet elsewhere you say that you don't. It would be clearer to native English speakers if you put "Retr0bright" in quotes when you don't actually mean it. "Retr0bright" is the compound. Bleaching is the process.

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    RetroGradeBEIanB145

    Reply 2 months ago

    Wait, my name is also Ian.
    Are three Ian's arguing amongst themselves? That's not very Ian of us. Have a pint on me and let's have a sit-down.
    I rarely ever meet other Ian's :D

    On your last point, IanB145, I do see your point, I use the term retr0bright both as a noun and a verb.

    To confirm: this instructable is simply an "off-the-shelf" alternative to the widely-known Retr0bright process that requires you to source materials that aren't that simple to get.

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    RetroGradeBEIanB145

    Reply 5 months ago

    I know it's three years ago, but I probably worded this wrong. I mentioned in the instructable (several times) that retrobrighting isn't a permanent fix and there's no guarantee it will work.

    On the last paragraph, did you read everything? Because using the bleaching hair cream was the entire point of my instructable.

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    Autunite

    3 years ago

    A few comments on that tetra pterodactyle dynamite thingy. From what I just found out, the hydrogen peroxide doesn't work well in temperatures below 40 degrees Celsius, and TAED helps with that, making it work at normal room temperatures. That explains why people have pretty good experience with sunlight, while it took me three days using regular black light at room temperature. I assume that I could either heat the thing up a little, or add the TAED (in form of Oxi-something).

    Anyway, if you're going to try it, and will use both sunlight and TAED, be very careful and monitor the process. It will most likely take a few hours only, and you don't want to overdo it. If you go without TAED and using artificial UV light, the process will probably take much longer.

    For people unable to find that creamy hydrogen peroxide stuff - eBay is your friend. Look for something like "hydrogen peroxide cream 12%" (in Germany, "wasserstoff peroxide cream 12%". I got mine for less than 10 EUR including shipping. 1L is a plenty, I needed about 100ml for the whole Atari 1040 ST.

    For keys and other smaller items, liquid hydrogen peroxide might be better choice. I am going to test it as soon as my bottle of liquid one arrives.

    For legal reasons, you might not be able to buy anything stronger than 12% (you know, the Paris bombs). Anyway, 12% should be enough.

    2 replies
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    RetroGradeBEAutunite

    Reply 5 months ago

    ALSO AGES AGO but I don't care, I'm going to comment anyway:
    Thanks for sharing your experience! On average, I never did any sessions that lasted for over 4 hours of direct sunlight exposure. I usually started on a warm sunny morning and finished up in the afternoon.

    If you expose the gel to heat for too long, it tends to dry out, which leads to ugly streaks that are hard to get rid of.

    In that case, especially with fragile/rare components, I'd rather advise anyone to try a 2 hour session, see if it works, if it hasn't restored to its former glory, you can try a second attempt. No more than two, though, as I've found that doing multiple sessions tends to make the plastic more fragile. No science to back that up, consider this anecdotal :)

    For smaller items, it does indeed make more sense to submerge the component in hydrogen peroxide.

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    TodzAutunite

    Reply 3 years ago

    The EU passed a law a couple of years ago and that meant that that all governments in the EU had to pass laws that restricted the sale of explosive precursor chemicals.

    The consequence is that from 2014 it is not possible to buy anything stronger than 12% hydrogen peroxide in the UK or elsewhere in the EU without a licence.

    What would be handy is a link to the "perfect" lamp/bulb for use in whitening plastic in the UK in winter. I'm not sure which is the most effective to buy!

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    RetroGradeBEbrokensocialscne

    Reply 5 months ago

    SORRY FOR THE LATE REPLY.
    I'm pretty sure you found out by now, but this sure fits the bill. I don't see any mention of the peroxide strength, might want to check on that.

    Don't forget the TAED as an activator, though!

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    MartinK3brokensocialscne

    Reply 1 year ago

    I'm curious to know if you tried that product and had any success with it?

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    RetroGradeBEGdkline810

    Reply 5 months ago

    Apologies for the horrendously late reply. I don't think I have ever seen a yellowed cartridge and I've seen a bunch.
    It seems to me that the cartridge material is something different than a Gameboy's, so I can't say for sure it would work.

    Yeah man xD I'm truly impressed by people these days. We truly are masters of finding problems and resolve them.

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    1710hammer

    4 years ago

    Have you tried spraying the finished piece with a clear coat to prevent re-yellowing?