What is Neoprene and Everything You Need to Know About Wetsuits

by Mar 23, 20210 comments

When you think Surfing, the first things that come to mind for most people are tropical beaches, deep tans, and the hot summer sun. But, with the popularity of surfing on the rise, and more crowds than ever, we’re all looking for those secret spots! To me, this means one thing – getting to colder water! Thankfully, neoprene and wetsuit development is so advanced these days, you can surf in Winter in the deepest darkest Canada, or frigid waters off of Tazmania.

In this article, we lay down everything about wetsuits that every surfer of all skill levels need to know. From understanding the mechanics of the suit, choosing which wettie for your needs, to care and maintenance. If you are ready, read on, stay stoked!

WHAT IS NEOPRENE

Neoprene or neoprene rubber is a man-made material first synthesized in the 1930’s. It’s a polymer – which are materials that form long, repeating chains of molecules. Neoprene shares many characteristics with natural rubber – its flexibility, chemical inertness, and insulating properties. Because of these properties, it is found in a variety of products like hoses, gaskets, sports equipment, and you guessed it, wetsuits.

The material was first marketed in 1931 under the name DuPrene after its invention by the DuPont company. Since then, the material has been picked up by various manufacturers and has increased in popularity and applications to this day.

One of the biggest contributors to neoprene’s popularity is its widespread use in watersports, be it wetsuits, drysuits, and various sporting goods.

WETSUIT Vs DRYSUIT

Essentially wetsuits and drysuits are both what’s known as exposure suits. These suits are designed to help the body maintain optimal temperatures in and underwater. The suit also slows down heat loss preventing hypothermia and other cold water issues. The main differences are as follows:

Wetsuits, as the name implies, retain body heat by allowing a thin film of water to seep in and sit between your skin and the inner side of the suit. This layer of water traps the heat that your body generates and uses the water as the heat conductor. The suits tight fit traps the water inside and stops it from seeping out. The material used, is normally closed-cell foam neoprene, is made up of tiny gas-filled “bubbles” that further insulates your body from the cold water outside.

Drysuits on the other hand keep the water out completely. The waterproof suit is made out of non-porous waterproof material such as nylon, and uses vulcanized rubber, or neoprene seals around the neck, cuffs and ankles (sometimes they have boots pre-attached). They are non-tight fitting and other items of clothing can be worn underneath to provide further insulation⁠—Think spy movies where guys wear tuxedos under their suit! Because of its properties, the suit is best used in extremely cold environments. It does, however, come with its own challenges. The air in the suit makes it tricky when trying to maintain neutral buoyancy and requires training for sure. They are quite a lot bulkier than a wetsuit too, so mobility is reduced compared to a wetsuit.

WETSUIT TEMPERATURE THICKNESS GUIDE

Wetsuit thickness affects how warm it will be, as well as the mobility it will provide. Thinner wetsuits will be much more flexible, but will not be as warm as a thicker wetsuit.

When picking which wetsuit to buy, the two main considerations are WHEN and WHERE you intend to surf.

Wetsuit thickness is measured in millimetres – so a 5/3 wetsuit will generally be 5mm thick on the body or torso, and then 3mm thick on the arms and lower legs.  

Warmer Waters 24°C or 75°F and Above⁠⁠ You won’t need a wettie at all. Rashguards or other UV protective clothing are usually enough. Places like the Philippines, Indo, Sri Lanka and other tropical waters fall into this category. A popular option for dawnies or evening surfs are a thin shorty, or maybe just a neoprene top.

For Temperatures 22° – 24°C / 71° – 75°F 2mm thick wetsuit tops are ideal. These wetsuits (well, half wetsuits) can be worn in slightly warmer waters like the Mediterranean and parts of the Indian Ocean and Pacific.

Ocean Temps 19° – 22°C / 66° – 71°F Ideally, you’d go for a shorty or long sleeved shorty. The Gold Coast during winter or the South West of France in August (although it may be flat then!)

Temperatures Around 17° – 20°C / 62° – 68°F Examples include the UK or Portugal during the Summer – I’d suggest something like a 3/2 GBS wetsuit – 3mm thick on the body and 2mm thick on the arms and legs. These can also be worn during Spring and Autumn in most of Europe, parts of Oz, and most of North America throughout Summer.

Temperatures In The 14° – 17°C / 57° – 62°F In parts of Europe in Autumn and Winter, you’d opt for a 4/3, and on chilli mornings maybe a pair of booties too. Northern California rarely gets above this temperature range so 4/3 or even thicker plus booties is the norm up here.

Temperatures from 8° – 14 °C / 46° – 57°F For anyone regularly surfing even colder waters a 5/3 fullsuit will be the go. At the lower end of this range, you will need a pair of booties (between 3 and 7mm thick depending on personal preference) gloves, plus a neoprene hood or hat. Scotland in Winter will get down to 8°C and parts of Canada and the East Coast of the US even colder! If you’re surfing in these temperatures, you need a good wettie, but more importantly you need a strong mind too!

Other factors such as personal tolerances, weather conditions, and desired mobility can affect wetsuit choices. A bit of research and some experimentation might be needed before you get a wetsuit that’s perfect for your needs – and if you live somewhere like the East Coast of the US, you will probably need a few different wetties for various times of the year.

SURF WETSUITS | WHAT ARE THEY? 

Not all wetsuits are made the same. Surf wetsuits are designed to focus on flexibility and mobility. Unlike dive wetsuits, they focus less on withstanding compression/decompression as surfers usually stay above the water surface. They are generally lighter too.

Wetsuits made for surfing also have special panels in the front and chest designed to block wind and keep the core warm. The arms and shoulder areas are flexible to maintain mobility when paddling. Generally, thicker surf wetsuits will have a panel of ‘smoothskin’ on the chest – this is intended to wick away any water, thus keeping the surfer warmer.

Swimming and triathlon wetsuits are also made in this smoothskin neoprene that improves hydrodynamics. These suits are designed to be super sleek in the water with little or no drag. Something that is not much of a concern to a surfer. The downside with these smoothie wetsuits is that they are really delicate. Because a surf wetsuit will incur some friction between the board and the surfer, a full smoothie wetsuit is not the best idea.

Though technically you can surf in any wetsuit you want, having a suit specifically designed for surfing vastly improves your experience and your overall comfort.

HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST SURFING WETSUIT

Now that we’ve established a few facts about wetsuits, it’s now time to choose one that is best for you and your needs. Here are a few things to consider:

A Good Fit is EVERYTHING
Wetsuits need to be skin-tight to be effective. Too loose a good water layer won’t form – every time a wave hits you a new batch of cold water will enter into your suit – and it will feel COLD! Too tight and it will be too uncomfortable to wear, near impossible to get on and too restricting around the wrists and neck. A good fitting wetsuit feels snug all over especially your core and chest. Try stretching your arms and shoulders and mimic the moves you will do in the water. It’s normal to feel somewhat constrained but movement should never be too difficult.

Check the joints specifically the armpits, elbows, and knee areas. These areas will see a lot more flexing than the other parts of the suit. Make sure that they are extra stretchy and use superstretch neoprene.

Also, see to it that the neck is tight enough to not let water in yet loose enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s choking you. The last thing you want to feel while in the water is the uncomfortable clasp of a tight wetsuit on your neck – Back zip suits will ba more adjustable in this regard. If you have a weird body shape, a back zip is probably the way to go.

Determine Where and When You Plan to do Most of Your Surfing
As stated above, wetsuits are rated based on their thickness and the water temperatures the suits are made for. With this in mind, determine where and when you do⁠—or at least plan to do⁠—most of your surfing.

Like I mentioned earlier, if you live somewhere where the water temperature fluctuates dramatically throughout the year you will need at least two wetties – One for Winter and one for Summer. BUT, ask yourself this. Will I really surf in the darkest depths of Winter? If the answer is yes, then for sure get a thick ‘Winter’ wetsuit. If you feel like a bit of a fair weather surfer, just get a good ‘Summer’ wettie and look after it. If you are still super keen to surf when the Winter rolls around, save the pennies and invest in a Winter suit when the time comes.

Zipper Placement

Over the years, there has been a few configurations to where the zippers are placed⁠—known as the Entry System. Back zip wetsuits are the oldest design in the market which makes them pretty common and a bit cheaper than the others. These are probably the easiest suits to get on and off, but due to a rigid zip running down your back, flexibility in this area will be minimal.

A newer addition is the Chest Zip configuration. As the name suggests, the entry zipper is placed in the front of the suit. It runs across horizontally or sometimes at an angle. This makes the suit more difficult to put on and off. BUT, because there is no zipper on the back panel, this area is super flexible, which is nice when you have to do a lot of paddling in the water.

Finally, there is the new Zipperless variant. These are similar to Chest Zips in design but are more stretchy because of the lack of zippers. There is no fear of zippers giving out over time too. However, they can also be REALLY tricky to get in and out of especially for first-time users, and in recent times this trend of zipperless suits has started to fade away.

TOP TIP! Visit your local surf shop and get some advice from someone who knows what they are talking about – DO NOT go and try on all of their wetsuits and then buy from the internet.

Most physical surf shops will be happy to match internet prices to get the sale, so be courteous, take some advice and everyone comes out a winner! 

SEAM CONSTRUCTION

Not all wetsuit seams are created equal. There are actually a few types of seam construction that offers a few benefits to the suits’ overall insulating and mobility performance. Here are some of them:

Flat Lock Seams are the most commonly found among the lower priced suits. Two sheets of neoprene are joined together at the edges one on top of the other. The seam is then stitched securely in place. The stitches, however, make tiny holes in the suit allowing more cold water to enter. This makes them unsuitable for really cold waters.

Glued and Blindstitched Seams (GBS) are an upgrade to the Flat Lock Seams. Typically, the sewing machine will used a special curved needle – The needle will only penetrate one side of the material so water will not be able to pass through. Thus resulting in a much warmer wetsuit. This construction also adds glue where the two neoprene sheets meet. The glue adds a bit more durability to the suit reducing the risk of the seams separating. Sometimes these seams will be Double Blindstitched – so stitched together on the outside and the inside.

Another variant to this is the use of Taped Seams. These are used in conjunction with a GBS suit but adds the benefit of a flexible waterproof tape. The tape runs along the seams above the stitching. This covers the tiny thread holes that let cold water in increasing the wetsuits insulating properties.

In recent years some manufacturers have added ‘Liquid Tape’ which is a rubbery material painted over the seam to form a totally waterproof bond. The trouble with this technology however is that is can be prone to cracking, which totally defies the point of using it in the first place.

ECO-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVES TO NEOPRENE

Being a synthetic material, Neoprene is made from inorganic compounds such as petroleum and requires a tonne of energy to produce. With the rise in environmental awareness, people have been seeking greener alternatives to materials such as neoprene. Here are some contenders available in the market today:

Geoprene
This synthetic rubber material has limestone as the main ingredient. The petroleum-free material uses the calcium carbonate found in natural limestone to produce similar characteristics to Neoprene. This one of the earliest Neoprene alternatives available.

Natural Rubber
Improved manufacturing techniques and access to new technology have made natural rubber production better in recent years. The flexibility and durability of natural rubber are combined with other materials like merino wool for insulation to make an effective wetsuit comparable to neoprene’s performance. The only downside to this is that natural rubber can be pretty challenging to source which can affect its price significantly.

Plant-Based Rubber
Companies like Patagonia are making another bid to the eco-friendly wetsuit market with their Yulex line. Made from Guayule, a woody shrub native to Mexico, water-based adhesives, and eco-friendly paints, this new material is a promising contender.

NeoGreene
This is another promising neoprene alternative. Manufacturers claim this material uses as much as 25% less oil and energy in its production compared to neoprene. It’s producer, GreenSmart, claims that the new material uses no chlorine, and is lighter and just as durable as neoprene.

WHAT TO WEAR UNDER YOUR WETSUIT

What you wear under wetsuit depends on your personal preference. It seems to me that most beginner surfers usually wear tight swim shorts or a bikini underneath. Some opt for Speedos instead. A rashguard will offer some protection from the wetsuit chafing but contrary to popular belief, will not really offer any additional warmth.

Going naked is probably the most popular option amongst most surfers. Neoprene wetsuits are usually padded enough to be comfortable even on bare skin. Taking it off in a pinch can be a problem, though obviously this depends on your personal preference and your surroundings! 

HOW TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR WETSUIT

Like any other equipment, proper care and maintenance will tremendously extend a wetsuits life span. Here are a few things you can do to keep your wetsuit in tiptop shape for as long as possible:

Be Careful Taking it On and Off
This sounds trivial but carelessly dressing and undressing can seriously damage the suit. And given the cost of these bad boys, you would want to avoid that scenario as much as possible. What you can do is come up with a dress-up-dress-down-routine that will help you get in and out of the suit as quickly and as carefully as possible.

Give The Wetsuit a Good Rinse After Every Use
We cannot stress this enough. Salt, dirt and grime from the parking lot are the number one enemies of neoprene and will wreak havoc if allowed to build up. After every use, even in between surfing sessions, do a quick rinse with cold fresh water making sure to cover every inch of the suit. Hit every nook and cranny as well as the zippers and seams.

Do a Thorough Wash Once in a While
Sooner or later your suit will need a good washing especially if you are planning to store it for long periods of time. Fill up a wetsuit changing bucket with water and put a few cups of wetsuit shampoo. Get the water sudsy and put the wetsuit in making sure the water reaches every nook. Gently work the wetsuit around to help remove any dirt and other particles. Rinse thoroughly with cool water.

TOP TIP! If you don’t have any wetsuit shampoo, try some mouthwash from the bathroom to give your suit an anti bacterial freshen up! If it is a bit stinky, it will for sure get rid of those bad odors.

Dry The Wetsuit Properly
After washing the suit, you can flip the suit inside out and hang it up to dry. Use a thick hanger and hang the suit by the waist⁠ and let the water drip. Try not to hang it under the sun or any source of heat as this can damage the material completely. Every now and then flip the suit again to continue drying. When both sides of the suit are dry, the suit can now be safely stored.

Avoid Peeing in Your Suit
Again, this is a no brainer but sometimes life has other plans. Always make it a point to go before you head out surfing and to always remove the suit properly when you do need to go. If you did do the deed, make sure to rinse your suit thoroughly with fresh water. You can use odour eliminators that are widely available to keep your suit smelling nice.

TOP TIP! If your wettie has any velcro around the neck or zipper, be sure to fasten the hook part of the velcro so that it doesn’t connect with the neoprene material. If you allow the velcro to connect with the neoprene often, it will cause the material to bobble, and eventually you will get a hole in your suit! Not ideal!

Storing Your Wetsuit
Though undoubtedly elastic, wetsuits are prone to stretching or deformation when stored incorrectly. Properly fold your wetsuits as neatly as possible. Avoid bunching it up and stuffing it carelessly as it can crinkle and crease easily. Store it somewhere dark away from moisture and heat as much as possible.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Wetsuits have come a seriously long way since the 70s and 80s. My first suit was actually a two-piece – with a long john and a jacket if you can believe that! The surf brands are taking leaps and bounds every year with new technology.

In the near future, perhaps we will be wearing 2mm thick suits to allow us to surf in colder and colder waters – and maybe, just maybe,  we’ll be able to find those elusive empty secret spots we all dream about!

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