Factors Affecting PLGA Degradation: What You Need to Know

by | Apr 19, 2023

Polylactic-co-glycolic acid (PLGA) is a biodegradable polymer that has been widely used in medical and biomaterials applications. It can be tailored to degrade at specific rates and provide controlled release of drugs or other molecules, making it an ideal material for many uses. However, the rate of PLGA degradation is not uniform and depends on various factors, such as its molecular weight, shape and ratio of lactic acid to glycolic acid.

In this article, we will explore the degradation mechanism of PLGA and how these important factors decide its degradation rate. We will also discuss the estimated degradation time for PLGA materials for different scenarios so readers can get a better understanding of how this versatile polymer works. So, strap in and let’s take a deep dive into the fascinating world of PLGA degradation!

What is the degradation mechanism of PLGA polymer?

degradation process of PLGA

The degradation mechanism of PLGA polymers is complex, but it can be broadly divided into two main pathways: hydrolysis and enzymatic breakdown. During hydrolysis, the water molecules break down the polymer chains, resulting in smaller fragments. This process occurs in aqueous environments and is accelerated by adding surfactants or organic acids as catalysts.

Enzymatic breakdown involves enzymes that break down the polymer chain into smaller fragments, which are then degraded by other enzymes or microorganisms. The rate of degradation can be controlled by adjusting the shape, size, and additives of the polymer. Additionally, enzymes can be added to further accelerate biodegradation for some applications. 

Important factors that decide degradation rate

The degradation rate of PLGA polymers is determined by several important factors. Here are the common items we will list here.

1. Ratio (LA:GA)

The ratio of lactic acid (LA) to glycolic acid (GA) in a PLGA polymer is one of the most important factors in determining its properties. A high LA:GA ratio results in a stiffer, stronger polymer with slower degradation rates. Conversely, a lower LA:GA ratio produces a softer polymer with faster degradation rates.

Regarding to PLGA internal components, the glycolide has better hydrophilicity than lactide. That means that GA has faster degradation rate than LA. For this way, PLGA 50:50 has the fastest degradation rate among another ratio (85:15 or 75:25 PLGA).

2. Molecular weight

Molecular weight is an important factor to consider when selecting a PLGA polymer for a particular application. The molecular weight of these polymers can range anywhere from 5,000 daltons to over 300,000 daltons.

Generally, the higher the molecular weight of the polymer, the slower the rate of degradation and vice versa. Additionally, the molecular weight has an effect on the mechanical properties such as tensile strength and elasticity of PLGA polymers. Lower molecular weights tend to have lower tensile strength and elasticity compared to higher molecular weights.

3. Material shape

PLGA Microsphere

Material shape is another important factor in controlling the rate of biodegradation for PLGA polymers. The more surface area a material has, the faster it will degrade. For example, materials with a porous or spongy internal structure have an increased surface area and thus tend to degrade faster than those with a smooth, even-surfaced structure. Additionally, materials that are in the form of thin filaments such as fibers or threads will generally degrade faster than those that are in bulkier shapes like beads or granules.

To further control the rate at which these materials degrade, engineers can also modify their shape. For example, by making them into smaller PLGA particles or thinning out the filament structure they can increase the surface area and thus speed up degradation. In addition to this, adding additives such as enzymes or surfactants can increase degradation rates as well. By knowing how material shape influences biodegradation, engineers can create materials that have tailored rates of biodegradation for specific applications.

4. Temperature and PH level

Temperature and pH levels are two important factors to consider when working with PLGA polymers. Temperature can affect the material’s mechanical properties, as well as its degradation rate. Generally, higher temperatures result in faster degradation rates, while lower temperatures have a more modest effect on degradation. Additionally, temperature can also affect the solubility of the polymer in water. For instance, at higher temperatures, polymers tend to be more soluble than at lower temperatures.

PH levels can also have an effect on PLGA polymers. Generally speaking, polymers degrade faster in acidic solutions than they do in alkaline solutions. As such, engineers should take pH into account when designing their products and select a material that is appropriate for their intended environment. Additionally, some pH-sensitive chemicals may be used to modify the material’s properties or enhance its performance over time.

What is the common PLGA degradation time?

Polylactic-co-glycolic acid (PLGA) is a popular biodegradable polymer used in a variety of engineering applications. It’s biodegradability makes it an attractive material choice, as it allows for the creation of products with a predetermined lifetime. Generally speaking, PLGA polymers take between one and two years to degrade completely, but this rate can be accelerated through exposure to certain environmental conditions or the addition of special additives.

The degradation time of PLGA polymers is an important factor for engineers to consider when designing products. Knowing the degradation time helps ensure that the product will perform as expected over its lifetime and meet desired specifications. For example, if a product needs to last longer than two years, then it’s important for engineers to choose materials that will not degrade quickly in order to meet this goal.

Despite the importance of understanding PLGA degradation time, there are still many unknowns in this area due to the complexity and variability of environmental conditions. As such, careful planning must be done in order to ensure that products made from these polymers will last as long as desired. With the right knowledge and preparation, PLGA polymers can help create products that last and perform as expected over their lifetimes.


Why does PGA degrade faster than PLA?

PGA degrades faster than PLA because of its chemical structure. PGA is a linear polymer composed of glycolic acid monomers, which makes it highly crystalline and amorphous. This structure makes PGA susceptible to hydrolysis and acid catalyzed depolymerization, leading to faster degradation compared to PLA.

PLA is a polymer composed of lactic acid units, making it less crystalline and more flexible than PGA. Therefore, it tends to degrade slower, taking up to several years, depending on various factors such as temperature, humidity, pH, and enzymatic activity. Moreover, PLA is more biocompatible, making it an attractive material for biomedical applications such as tissue engineering, drug delivery, and surgical implants.

Does PLGA degrade faster than PGA?

The degradation rate of PLGA (poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid)) and PGA (polyglycolic acid) depends on the specific composition of the polymer and the conditions in which it is exposed. Generally, PLGA degrades slower than PGA due to the presence of lactic acid in its structure, which makes it more hydrophobic and less susceptible to hydrolysis.

However, the degradation rate can be tailored by adjusting the ratio of lactide to glycolide in PLGA or by modifying PGA with comonomers or additives. In biomedical applications, the degradation rate is critical for controlling the release of drugs or tissue regeneration, and both PLGA and PGA have been extensively studied and utilized for their tunable properties.

What are the problems with biodegradable polymers?

The main problem with biodegradable polymers is that they often only degrade under very specific conditions and may not break down at all in natural environments like landfills or bodies of water. Furthermore, some biodegradable materials release harmful chemicals or microplastics when they degrade, posing potential risks to the environment and human health.

Additionally, the production of biodegradable polymers often requires significant amounts of energy and resources, making them less efficient and more expensive than traditional petroleum-based plastics. There is also the issue of consumer education and infrastructure, as many communities may not have the facilities in place to properly compost or recycle biodegradable materials, leading to confusion and ineffective waste management.

While biodegradable polymers hold promise as an alternative to traditional plastics, there are still significant challenges that need to be addressed in terms of their environmental impact, cost-effectiveness, and feasibility of widespread adoption.

What are the different types of polymer degradation methods?

There are several different types of polymer degradation methods, including thermal degradation, photo-degradation, hydrolysis, and oxidation. Thermal degradation occurs when a polymer is exposed to high temperatures and breaks down into smaller molecules. Photo-degradation happens when a polymer is exposed to light, causing it to break down. Hydrolysis occurs when water breaks down the molecules in a polymer. And oxidation occurs when a polymer is exposed to air or oxygen, and it reacts with the oxygen molecules.

Each degradation method affects the polymer in different ways and can lead to changes in its physical or chemical properties. Understanding the various types of polymer degradation methods is crucial for scientists and engineers working in industries such as plastics, textiles, and coatings.

What is the difference between polymer erosion and degradation?

Polymer erosion is a process in which a polymer is gradually worn away by mechanical forces, such as friction or abrasion. This can result in a reduction in the thickness, mass, or surface area of the polymer. On the other hand, polymer degradation is a process in which a polymer is broken down into smaller molecules. This can happen due to exposure to heat, light, chemicals, or biological agents. Degradation can result in a loss of the physical and chemical properties of the polymer, such as strength, flexibility, and durability.

While erosion mainly affects the surface of a polymer, degradation affects its entire structure. Both erosion and degradation can have significant implications for the performance and durability of products made from polymers.


PLGA polymer is a widely used biodegradable polymer with immense potential in various biomedical applications such as drug delivery, tissue engineering, and wound healing. The degradation of PLGA is a complex process that involves various factors, including molecular weight, ratio, material shape, and environmental conditions.

Understanding the degradation behavior of PLGA is crucial in determining its efficacy and safety in different applications. Ongoing research in this field will undoubtedly pave the way for the development of novel and effective biodegradable polymer-based products for clinical use.