Skip to content Skip to footer

How Does A Wetsuit Work?

You’ve seen swimmers wearing them. You’ve seen scuba divers and surfers wearing them. Perhaps you’ve worn them a couple of times. Wetsuits aren’t strange to you but have you ever thought about how these ‘miracle clothes’ work? If you are curious about how wetsuits work, you’ve come to the right place.

Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between the neoprene (material used to make wetsuits) and your skin so you are going to get wet – hence the name, wetsuits. However, your body heat will warm the trapped layer of water to keep you warm.

It’s important that wetsuits are tight to ensure that the layer of water trapped between the suit and the wearer’s skin is thin. If a wetsuit isn’t tight, the layer of water trapped will be too wide and the body heat won’t be enough to warm the water and keep the wearer warm. And this defeats the purpose of wetsuits which is to keep you warm in cold waters.

In this article, you’ll learn about the benefits of wearing wetsuits, materials that wetsuits are made of, wetsuit thickness, different types of wetsuits, wetsuit zippers, and so on. The aim is to provide you with all the information you need so you can confidently select wetsuits for your water adventures such as surfing, scuba diving, freediving, and so on.

Why Wear A Wetsuit?

Heat is transferred from a region of high temperature to a region of low temperature. This is basic physics that we’ve seen all around us. So when you are in the water, your body heat naturally escapes to the colder temperature of the water. Now, we lose heat a lot faster in water, about 25 times, than in air, so the body temperature can significantly drop causing hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a very real risk for scuba divers, especially when diving in cold waters (during the winter months or cold weather). During hypothermia, the body temperature is significantly and dangerously low which will cause the heart, respiratory system, and organs not to work normally. This can cause a diver to go into shock and eventually die if not treated.

And this is where wetsuits come in. Wearing a wetsuit, along with diving boots and gloves, will significantly slow the loss of heat from the body and keep you warm by using your body heat to warm a thin layer of water trapped between the neoprene and your skin. As a result, the body temperature doesn’t drop significantly, the body’s organs continue to function normally, and the diver can dive safely for longer.

Wetsuits also offer protection against jellyfish stings, as well as a rocky reef. Swimming is easier and faster with wetsuits as well as maintaining buoyancy.

What Are Wetsuits Made Of And Why?

Neoprene is the most important material used to make wetsuits and this is because neoprene is a very good insulator. Other materials such as nylon and metals like aluminum or titanium are also used to make wetsuits.

Neoprene is made of small closed cells that provide insulation and prevents the loss of body heat in cold water by trapping air. The thicker the neoprene used to manufacture a wetsuit, the warmer the wetsuit will be since it’ll have more closed cells to trap air. This is why there are different neoprene thicknesses for different water temperatures. And unlike most other materials, neoprene doesn’t become very heavy when wet.

Wetsuits typically have three layers. The layer closest to you is made of a soft material like nylon to protect your skin against chafing which will happen if a tough material is used. Neoprene is the thickest and middle layer and the thicker the neoprene, the better the suit is at keeping you warm.

The outermost layer is made of a water-resistant material like kevlar, kanoko, lycra nylon. The reason why the outermost layer isn’t waterproof is that some water has to pass through since you need a thin layer of water between your skin and the innermost layer.

Some wetsuits feature an extremely thin metal layer to prevent loss of heat. Metals used include aluminum, titanium, or copper.

Wetsuit Thickness

Recall that the thickness of the neoprene layer of wetsuits determines how much heat is retained. And this means you’ll need a thicker neoprene layer for colder waters. It’s important you choose the right neoprene material for the water temperature you are diving it. Too thick and you may feel uncomfortable while a neoprene layer that’s too thin for the water you are in means you’ll lose body heat faster and feel cold.

The thickness of the neoprene layer in wetsuits is measured in millimeters and may be labeled in one or two numbers. The first number refers to the thickness around the torso (the most important part of wetsuits protect against hypothermia), and the second number is the thickness around the legs but also the arms if no third number is provided.

Neoprene can have thicknesses of 0.1 – 2 mm (the thinnest), 3 mm, 4mm, and up to 7 mm. The thinnest neoprene layer is ideal for tropical waters, 3 mm for spring water (58 – 63 degrees), and 4 mm and thicker for waters that are below 62°F.

In addition to a very thick layer of neoprene wetsuits, you’ll also need diving boots and gloves in cold waters to protect your extremities from going numb.

Different Types Of Wetsuits

Wetsuits come in different types that are ideal for different conditions. Below are the different types of wetsuits:

  • Full Wetsuits: This type of wetsuit cover the entire body including the arms and legs up to wrists and ankles. They may or may not come with hoods and are available in different thicknesses for different water conditions.
  • Shorty Wetsuits: Made for warmer water temperatures, shorty wetsuits have short sleeves and short legs.
  • Springsuits: Designed for use in spring and autumn, springsuits typically have short arms and legs. However, there are variants that have long sleeves which are suitable for cold and windy conditions.
  • Long John wetsuit: Essentially a spring wetsuit covering your whole legs but without sleeves. Suitable for warmer climates.
  • Wetsuit tops: These are vests or tops that are made of 0.5 – 2mm neoprene and are ideal for warmer water sports. You can pair wetsuit tops with boardshorts or a bikini bottom.
  • Wetsuit bottoms:As the name suggests, these are pants, leggings, or shorts made of neoprene and are suitable for use in warm waters.

Types of Wetsuit Seam Seals

Wetsuits are not designed to be waterproof as the outer layer is only water-resistant and as this, some water will pass through the outer layer and get trapped between your skin and the innermost layer. So, you can’t stay dry with a wetsuit. And remember that your body will heat this layer of trapped water to keep you warm.

The type of sealing used in wetsuits determines how much water can pass through the wetsuit. And this is why the sealing of wetsuits depends on the temperature of the water the wetsuit is designed for.

Wetsuits designed for use in tropical warm waters usually have flatlock stitching which lets in some water. This kind of stitching lets in some water and makes the wetsuit more flexible for free movement.

Blindstitching is another type of stitching found in wetsuits that lets in less water than flatlock stitching. Glue is also added to the covers to further limit the amount of water that can get in. Blindstitching is used in wetsuits that are designed for colder waters.

For extreme cold water diving, there’s an extra protective layer of interior seam taping in addition to blindstitching and glued seal covers and wetsuits with these sealings let in the least amount of water.

Note that the less water that seeps into a wetsuit, the better the insulation of the wetsuit as the body heat can amply warm the layer of water and retain warmth.

Types of Wetsuit Zips

The type of zipper used in wetsuits is also important as it determines how well-sealed they are. Zippers also determine how easy to put on or remove wetsuits as well as their flexibility. Below are the types of zippers found in wetsuits:

  • Back zip: The traditional zipper-type used in wetsuits, back zip wetsuits have vertical zip on the back of the suit which runs down the top down to the waist. It’s very easy to wear back zip wetsuits. However, there is the drawback of reduced flexibility and more water entering the suit.
  • Chest zip: Wetsuits with this type of zip have a short diagonal or horizontal zip across rhe chest. There’s less flushing (water getting into the suit), and more flexibility. However, they aren’t as easy to wear as back zip suits.
  • Zipperless: As the name implies, this type of wetsuit doesn’t have zips. Instead, they rely on overlapping neoprene layers to create a seal and keep water out.

The main advantage of zipperless wet suits is that they offer the greatest flexibility and have the least amount of flushing. However, it’s more complicated to wear or remove zipperless wetsuits. However, practice makes perfect and this will stop being an issue when you get the hang of it.


How To Clean And Care For Your Wetsuit?

Wetsuits are expensive and will take a big chunk of your investment in your scuba gear. And unless you want to be replacing your wetsuit every now and then, it’s in your best interest to take proper care of your wetsuit to ensure it lasts long.

Below are steps care for your wetsuit:

Rinse your wetsuit after each dive with cool, fresh water

You should always rinse your wetsuit with cool, freshwater after each dive to get rid of salt deposits and organic matter. Salt degrades neoprene and must be washed off. Never use hot water to wash your wetsuit as heat and neoprene don’t combine well.

The inside of your wetsuit must also be washed as salt and organic residue can also accumulate in the interior of the wetsuit. Turn the wetsuit outside out and wash the inside with cool, freshwater.

Drip dry in the shadow

Remember I said neoprene and heat don’t combine well? You shouldn’t dry your wetsuit in the sun. Instead, dry your wetsuit in the shade after folding it over a padded hanger.

The inside of the wetsuit should be dried first since it’s easier to pull out the inside of your wetsuit when it’s still wet.

Store properly

How you store your wetsuit has an effect on its structure and durability. You shouldn’t just scrunch your wetsuit into a bag or corner as this would affect the structure of the neoprene. Instead, put your wetsuit on a padded hanger after folding it at the waist.

Occasionally wash with wetsuit cleaner

You should wash your wetsuit occasionally with a specialized wetsuit cleaner to get rid of any smell or lingering stain. Never wash your wetsuit in a washing machine or use a dryer as they can damage the neoprene. Instead, wash your wetsuit in a bucket of cool freshwater.

Lubricate the zipper

Saltwater will wear out the zipper of your wetsuit and you should keep the zipper in good condition by lubricating it with specialized zipper lubricant.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do You Wear Anything Under A Wetsuit?

Whether you wear something or nothing under your wetsuit is a matter of personal preference. However, it’s advisable you wear something under your wetsuit to prevent chafing. From a bikini to swimsuits, boardshorts, and other sport-specific gear, there’s no shortage of clothing to wear under your wetsuit.

Should A Wetsuit Feel Tight?

Wetsuits should fit snugly, not tight! They should feel like a second skin and be comfortable. Wearing a neoprene that’s too tight will not only feel uncomfortable but also restrict your range of motion.

For What Water Temperature Are Wetsuits the Most Effective?

Wetsuits come in different thicknesses and can be used for different water temperatures. Check the temperature of the water you’ll be diving, swimming, or surfing in to choose a wetsuit of an appropriate thickness.

Wetsuit vs. Drysuit, Which Is Better?

Unlike wetsuits, drysuits are designed to completely keep water out since they are waterproof. However, drysuits aren’t as flexible as wetsuits and are usually worn for warmth during out-of-the-water activities like kayaking, paddleboarding, and so on. On the other hand, a wetsuit is preferred for in water activities as they aren’t as restrictive as drysuits.

Leave a Comment