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What Is a Wetsuit? 6 Critically Important Things to Understand

Last updated: November 4, 2021
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custom vector graphic showing the front and back of a generic wetsuit

If you plan to participate in watersports such as free diving, snorkeling, surfing, or scuba diving, you might want to invest in a wetsuit.

There are different types of suits that you can use, so it’s essential to understand the basics.

If you know more about wetsuits, how they should fit, how much they typically cost, and so on, you can make an informed decision on which is best for you.

Keep reading to learn six critical components of wetsuits.

What Is a Wetsuit?

A wetsuit is a special suit that people wear when they’re in the water for extended periods.

This suit is especially effective for cold waters since the thicker material covers most of the body.

It helps prevent hypothermia and preserves the body’s warmth.

You’ll often see divers, surfers, and swimmers wearing a wetsuit.

Those that swim in warm waters don’t always need a wetsuit.

They can use a partial wetsuit (shorties) that leaves the arms and legs exposed.

A wetsuit can also be referred to as an exposure suit in the diving world. This term includes wetsuits, drysuits, and rash guards.

When Were Wetsuits Invented?

Though a few people are responsible for our modern-day wetsuit, most historians credit Hugh Bradner with spearheading the construction.

He was a physicist at the University of California Berkeley, who developed the idea of a wetsuit in 1951 when he worked for the US Navy.

Dr. Bradner had the idea to keep divers warm by creating a suit that provided insulation and protection from illnesses.

His first suits for the Navy Frogmen did not have any nylon backing the neoprene material.

Therefore, the fabric tore easily, letting in excessive water.

Other pioneers, such as Jack O’Neill and Bob Meistrell, improved upon the original idea, producing the first modern-day wetsuits.

How Do Wetsuits Work?

How does the wetsuit keep the diver warm if it’s constantly surrounded by and absorbing cold water?

Let’s take a look.

custom vector graphic showing the front and back of a generic wetsuit

How Do Wetsuits Keep You Warm?

Once the diver gets into the water, a thin layer of water seeps through the first layer.

The water is now between the diver’s body and the wetsuit itself.

The body then warms the water and keeps the diver from losing too much heat while in the water.

Additionally, the wetsuit consists of more than one layer, each with trapped air between them.

One of these layers is thicker, made of a synthetic rubber called Neoprene.

The nitrogen gas bubbles inside of the Neoprene are excellent for insulation and keep the body warm.

Remember, the thicker the Neoprene, the better the insulation.

Are Wetsuits Waterproof?

Despite keeping the body safe from the adverse effects of cold water, a wetsuit is not waterproof.

It takes in water purposefully and traps the moisture between layers.

If you don’t want your body to get wet, you might want to check out a drysuit, which we’ll discuss later.

What Are Wetsuits Made From?

Manufacturers create wetsuits from several different fabrics layered on top of one another.

They work together seamlessly to allow you to maintain your body temperature in cold water settings.

Wetsuits are generally made from 100% Neoprene or at least a blend of Butyl rubber and Neoprene.

The spongy material of the Neoprene is in the middle, while the surface comes laminated with fabric like polyester, nylon, or even Kevlar.

The other layers on the outside of the wetsuit might be Neoprene or metal oxide, serving as extra insulation protection.

Differences Between a Wetsuit and a Drysuit

Now that we’ve covered wetsuits, let’s compare them to drysuits.

Wetsuits

vector graphic showing a collection of the best wetsuits for scuba divers

  • Made of synthetic rubber neoprene
  • Keep you warm while you’re wet
  • Not waterproof
  • Wetsuits should fit tightly
  • Full range of motion
  • More favorable for cold water

Drysuits

vector graphic showing the best drysuits in different styles and colors

  • Completely waterproof
  • Not necessarily designed to keep you warm
  • It keeps all water away from your body
  • Fits loosely like a jacket
  • More effective for out of water sports like kayaking

How Are Wetsuits Supposed to Fit?

A diver needs the wetsuit to fit tight all around, hugging the body.

It shouldn’t be too tight to the point that it limits your range of mobility, but you should not have any gaping spaces between the suit and your body.

If you’re wearing a full-length wetsuit, the sleeves should come down to the wrists, and the legs should stop right above the ankles.

An easy way to test if your suit fits properly is to reach your arm around to zip the wetsuit yourself.

If you can zip it up in the back easily, the suit is likely too big.

If you lightly tug on the lower back section of the wetsuit and there are no rolls or give, the size is probably correct.

Are Wetsuits Comfortable?

A wetsuit is like a second skin.

It’s comfortable when you have the correct size.

If it’s too small, you’ll feel uncomfortable and like you can’t move around well.

It might even feel challenging to breathe with a wetsuit on that’s too tight.

If the wetsuit is too big, it won’t keep the cold out, and it’ll feel heavy and be a drag to put on and take off.

Are Wetsuits Hard to Put on?

Divers usually learn that it’s not easy to put on a wetsuit no matter what tricks they employ.

It’s also easy to read the fabric if you’re pulling too hard to get it on.

Sharp fingernails can also dig out small pieces of the suit when pulling and tugging it up because it’s a tight fit.

Why Do Wetsuits Zip in the Back?

Wetsuits zip up in the back to allow an ample opening for you to get into the suit.

You don’t have to wiggle too much, and you won’t hurt yourself while trying to get your arms and legs inside.

Back zip wetsuits also tend to allow for more room around the shoulders, which feels better when you’re moving around and stretching your arms.

Lastly, back zip wetsuits don’t cost as much as wetsuits that zip up in the front.

Are Wetsuits Buoyant?

Nowadays, wetsuits consist of mostly Neoprene, which weighs much less than the same volume of water.

So, when you get in the water, the wetsuit provides a little more buoyancy.

We’d suggest factoring in the lift you’ll get while underwater when wearing a wetsuit.

Any easy way to quickly do this is by using a scuba diving weight calculator.

How Much Do Wetsuits Cost?

Wetsuits have a wide variation of prices simply because they come in diverse styles.

Factors such as the wetsuit thickness, the seam type, and the thickness of the neoprene material can affect the cost.

In general, partial wetsuits cost nearly $50, and full suits start at about $75.

The higher, more upscale wetsuits can cost as much as $500.

Where Can I Buy a Wetsuit?

You can usually purchase a quality wetsuit online or in a sporting goods store.

The benefits of buying it in person are that a store clerk can assist you, and you get to see whether the suit fits while you’re there.

They’ll tell you how to make sure you’ve selected the correct size.

Once you know your size, you may be able to get it online from Amazon or a wetsuit retailer.

Sticking with the same brand is also essential because different manufacturers may not fit the same way.

Billabong and Roxy are two high-quality brands that offer the best wetsuits.

Suggested Resource

Best Wetsuits: a hand-curated list of the best wetsuits for scuba diving, surfing, and more

Maintaining a Wetsuit

Wetsuits can become costly, especially if you’re getting one with unique features.

They are an investment, so you should take care of them to maintain their integrity.

Holes and tears will run amuck if the wetsuit is not maintained correctly.

Can Wetsuits Be Washed?

If you use the wetsuit often, you should also wash it after every use.

Here is the best way to wash the wetsuit with warm or cool water:

  • Give the wetsuit a good rinse on the outside to remove debris like dirt and sand. (Don’t forget the zipper also)
  • Flip the wetsuit inside out
  • Fill a container with water and put the wetsuit inside
  • Make sure to gently wash the wetsuit from the inside to the outside with a wetsuit shampoo. Don’t use a regular detergent.
  • Gently rub in the shampoo and conditioner
  • Lather the cleaner to ensure that the shampoo penetrates the Neoprene
  • Allow the wetsuit to sit in the container, soak for around ten minutes, and then remove it.
  • Fold the wetsuit and let it air-dry from the inside out.

Can Wetsuits Go in the Washing Machine?

The washing machine will damage the Neoprene, so never put the wetsuit inside the washing machine.

If you somehow cannot handwash, use cool water and a slow spinning cycle.

How to Take Care of a Wetsuit

Follow these simple tips to care for your wetsuit:

Always dry the wetsuit from the inside out because it will help to keep the flexibility.

Plus, you need the inside to dry first.

Never dry your wetsuit directly in the sun.

It makes the Neoprene too rigid.

Hangers can stretch the shoulder areas, so be careful if you try to hang the wetsuit.

The heaviness of the wet wetsuit can also make it rip or tear along the seams.

The wetsuit should dry in a space that’s well-ventilated and free of moisture.

You can fold it for convenience.

Don’t leave the wetsuit hanging for too long.

Several months in an attic or garage with humidity can cause mold.

Wrapping Up

Wetsuits are an essential part of diving, surfing, and partaking in other water activities in cold water.

There are different styles that you can purchase, but you have to prioritize the right wetsuit fit.

Proper maintenance of the wetsuit is crucial unless you plan to replace your wetsuit each year.

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