Hydrogen–air mixtures are highly flammable. Hydrogen sensors are therefore of paramount importance for timely leak detection during handling. However, existing solutions do not meet the stringent performance targets set by stakeholders, while deactivation due to poisoning, for example by carbon monoxide, is a widely unsolved problem. Here we present a plasmonic metal–polymer hybrid nanomaterial concept, where the polymer coating reduces the apparent activation energy for hydrogen transport into and out of the plasmonic nanoparticles, while deactivation resistance is provided via a tailored tandem polymer membrane. In concert with an optimized volume-to-surface ratio of the signal transducer uniquely offered by nanoparticles, this enables subsecond sensor response times. Simultaneously, hydrogen sorption hysteresis is suppressed, sensor limit of detection is enhanced, and sensor operation in demanding chemical environments is enabled, without signs of long-term deactivation. In a wider perspective, our work suggests strategies for next-generation optical gas sensors with functionalities optimized by hybrid material engineering.