From how does a wetsuit work to how thick should your wetsuit be, there are hundreds of questions surrounding wetsuits. We wouldn’t blame you for thinking surely a wetsuit is a wetsuit! But delve in slightly deeper and suddenly you’ll find a whole host of wetsuit details regarding wetsuit shape, price and thickness you’ll need to decide on – no matter which water activity you’re taking part in.
Before you feel overwhelmed, read this wetsuit guide. We’ve broken everything down to help you understand exactly how a wetsuit works, and the key facts and considerations you should look at when looking for your own.
What does a wetsuit do?
Designed to fit tightly to the body, a wetsuit is essentially a bodysuit made from rubbery neoprene fabric. The extra warmth a wetsuit provides makes it possible for the wearer to stay comfortable in the water for longer periods of time before getting cold. Thus, wetsuits are regularly worn during watersport activities; including, sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing, water-skiing, windsurfing, swimming and diving. But how does a wetsuit actually work?
How does a wetsuit work?
A wetsuit works by trapping a thin layer of water between the suit material and the wearer’s skin. This layer of water is quickly heated up by body heat and creates a barrier of warmer water between the skin and the colder outside. This slows down the transfer of heat out of the body and keeps the wearer warmer for longer in the water. It’s a bit like being encased by a very thin water-bottle!
What are wetsuits made of?
Wetsuits are made of neoprene. Neoprene (or polychloroprene, technically a form of foam) is a synthetic rubber, first developed in the 1930s when natural rubber became in very high demand. The semi-permeable fabric is composed of tiny closed-cell bubbles, that hold air and make it a very effective insulating material. Neoprene comes in different thicknesses, whereby the thicker the neoprene the more insulation it provides.
Neoprene has similar properties to natural rubber but has qualities ideal for the marine environment and for making wetsuits. These include being more:
And, neoprene is less expensive than natural rubber. The only downside is that neoprene is less eco-friendly and can be very hot to wear.
Do wetsuits actually keep you dry?
Wetsuits (as the name hints at) are not designed to keep you dry. As explained above, wetsuits actually work better once submerged as the water needs a few seconds to seep inside the suit so it can be warmed up. This is also why wetsuits need to be tight fitting, as once the water is inside it needs to stay trapped in. Otherwise, the layer of warmed water would continually be flushed out of the suit by new colder water, and it would effectively be the same as wearing nothing at all!
What is the difference between a wetsuit and a drysuit?
Aside from the greater cost of a drysuit, the biggest difference between a wetsuit and a drysuit is that a wetsuit lets water in, whereas a drysuit does not. As water takes heat away from the body 25x faster than air, drysuits are usually worn in order to stay warmer in colder sea temperatures of roughly below 20°C. In very cold water, drysuits become essential to preserve life.
How To Buy A Wetsuit
Now we’ve explained exactly how a wetsuit works, we’ll explain the key considerations you need to bear in mind when narrowing down which wetsuit is best for you below.
Should you buy a wetsuit?
This really depends on you. As with any hobby, having your own equipment will mean you can participate easily and readily making the sport a lot more accessible to you. Plus, like with any good outfit, wearing something you know you feel safe and comfortable in will make the sport a lot more enjoyable, and may help you feel more confident in the water as well.
Wetsuit hire is sometimes available in Surf Shops and Watersports Centres. This is a quick solution if you don’t have your own kit, but, can be a gamble when it comes to comfiness, quality and fit. Also, hired wetsuits are usually still damp from their previous use and often have an unpleasant salty smell attached. (Not so nice!). While hiring is still better than nothing, the cost of repeated hire will quickly add up and you will soon be better off buying your own.
So, if you are planning on needing a wetsuit more than a couple of times, we’d recommend getting your own. There are some really good cheap wetsuits out there as well as high-end!
What to take into consideration when buying a wetsuit
- Water Temperature – Where will you be using your wetsuit and what is the average temperature of the water going to be? (Check our wetsuit thickness guide at the end of this section to find which thickness you’ll need).
- Outside elements – What is the air temperature and wind speed like? If there is a cold atmosphere, and/or a strong cool wind, you will become colder much faster than when there is no wind. (Bare this in mind when choosing wetsuit thickness).
- Usage – What will you be using your wetsuit for? How much moving around and bending of your arms and legs will you need to do while wearing it? (Bear this in mind while choosing thickness distribution).
- Short or long – Wetsuits can come with either full-length arms and full-length legs, long arms short legs, short arms long legs, short arms and short legs. Some even come with arms that can be removed. If you opt for short arms or short legs, you won’t have any extra warmth in these parts, but this can be much more comfortable to wear in warmer temperatures.
- Durability – How durable does your wetsuit need to be? This usually depends on how frequently you will be using your wetsuit and how much wear and tear it might endure. If you plan on using your wetsuit a lot, it might be worth spending more on a high-quality wetsuit that will last you much longer.
All the considerations above will affect which wetsuit thickness is best for you to choose.
Wetsuit Thickness Guide
The thicker the wetsuit the warmer it will keep you. But the less flexible it will become. A wetsuit that is too thick in warm conditions could cause you to overheat, while a wetsuit too thin in cold conditions could lead to hypothermia.
Wetsuit thickness is measured in millimetres (mm). You can usually see this number stamped onto the outside sleeve or inside the neck of the wetsuit. It is common for wetsuits to be made with a thicker torso, and thinner arms and the legs. This is extremely helpful if your activity requires a lot of manoeuvrability, as thick neoprene can be very restricting. Having different thickness distributions in your wetsuit means your core can be kept warmest while allowing you easier movement in your arms and legs.
The industry standard for presenting wetsuit thickness numbers is to put them next to each other separated by a symbol such as / : . Often there will be 2 or even 3 numbers referring to the different thicknesses.
For example, 3.2 means a 3mm torso with 2mm arms and legs. Or 6/5/4, meaning a 6mm torso, 5mm legs with 4mm arms.
Taking all the above into account, the neoprene thickness is arguably the most important part to decide on when buying a wetsuit. Use the wetsuit thickness guide below to help you decide which wetsuit thickness you need for your water temperature. (These water temperatures are for guidance only. Wetsuit brand’s own recommendations may differ).
How tight should a wetsuit be?
In order for it to work best a wetsuit needs to hold in a thin layer of water between the neoprene material and your skin. So, there should not be any places where water can easily flow in and out. A wetsuit should be formfitting and hug closely to your body and should not have any loose folds, or gaps at the end of the arms, legs, or neck. Having said this, it should still allow you full movement and certainly not be cutting off your blood circulation. Make sure you can definitely breathe in it too!
When trying on a new wetsuit, we’d recommend sticking your finger inside the wetsuits edges, and checking you can pull it out an inch away from your skin.
If you are not used to wearing a wetsuit, it is worth bearing in mind the tight fit will probably feel constricting, but the wetsuit will loosen up considerably once in the water.
How to put on a wetsuit
While occasionally wetsuits will glide on with miraculous ease, we’ll be honest and say that sometimes putting on a wetsuit can be the most challenging part of the adventure. It can take some heaving and huffing (though always worth it!). With putting on a wetsuit, our main tip is to take your time! It gets easier with practice, as you get to know your own wetsuit.
A dry wetsuit slides easiest over dry skin, whereas a wet wetsuit slides easier over wet skin. Wearing a thin rash guard or vest underneath will also help.
If you go out into the water a lot, unavoidably there will be times you’ll find yourself breaking a sweat heaving on a sticky damp wetsuit over dry skin, but hey ho!
Tips for putting on a wetsuit
- Start off by making sure your wetsuit is the right way round. A long vertical zip goes at the back, whereas a horizontal zip usually sits along the front chest.
- Put your feet in first and pull the wetsuit over your ankles. It helps to keep your socks for this or put a plastic bag over your foot while sliding it in.
- Gently pull the wetsuit up over your legs and fully up to your waist, pulling out any folds that get stuck at the knee joints or under the bum.
- Pull the wetsuit up over your body, and slide your arms through the sleeves one at a time, all the way up to your shoulders. Make sure there are no folds or creases here, or at the elbows too.
- Now your wetsuit is basically on! Do the zipper and the Velcro up at the back. Wetsuits tend to come with long zip-pulls to allow you to do the zip up by yourself. Reach behind your back and pull the zip-pull up. It’s always easier if there is someone to help.
- The wetsuit is supposed to feel tight and be form fitting. But make sure you still have full movement, no blood circulation is being cut off and you can comfortably breathe. If the wetsuit restricts any of these, it is too small.
If your mobility is difficult, see if you can get a wetsuit with short legs and short arms, or with detachable arms. As this makes the wetsuit a lot easier to slide on and off.
What to do with an old wetsuit
Sadly, wetsuit material is synthetic and not eco-friendly and not easy to recycle – especially once it has reached the end of its life. Old wetsuits that have been exposed to the elements tend to eventually disintegrate into a pile of black dust. Many end up in the bin.
However, if there is sill life left in the fabric, here is a short list of up-cycling and recycling ideas that you could try.
- Donate it to a watersports centre or charity for use by someone else. A quick Google search will tell you the ones nearest you.
- Donate it to an up-cycling scheme such as Loved & Upcycled.
- Turn it into a laptop / iPad / phone case.
- Cut it into a drinks insulation case. (The sleeves are great for this).
- Turn it into a purse, wallet, pencil case, or sunglasses case.
- Tun it into seat-belt pads, steering wheel cover, or roof rack pads.