What is a wetsuit, what is it made of, why and when you should use a wetsuit?
Being a swimmer or a SUPer with your paddle board while living in a colder area where the water is only warm 2-3 months a year isn’t fun at all. Stepping in water only in summer limits you from staying active and doing the water sports you love. However, if you own a wetsuit, you can practically go into the water for swimming, surfing, paddling, or scuba diving whenever you feel like it.
This piece of equipment is there to keep you warm even when wet, so you don’t die of hypothermia in the cold waters. With that said, let’s take a closer look into what is a wetsuit, how it was invented, what it is, and why you need it.
The first design for a wetsuit came between the years of 1927-1929 by Thomas Edgar Aud of Herndon, Virginia. This initial design looked more like today’s dry-suit than a neoprene wetsuit.
As it was stated in Aud’s notes, “it was made of some suitable strong and durable waterproof material, such as soft vulcanized rubber or any suitable combination of rubber and fabric” and designed as “a suit for life-saving, swimming, and analogous purposes, which may be applied with great ease and speed and which will effectively seal the entrance opening against the intrusion of water.”
At that point, neoprene did not exist, but it was discovered in 1930.
Then, Hugh Bradner (1915–2008), a physicist who worked for the US Navy in 1951, designed the modern-day neoprene suit as an insulated suit that keeps your body’s temperature high enough when in water.
Hugh worked with the cellular structure of neoprene, which he discovered it would make for a superb wetsuit material. Then in 1952, wetsuits became a big thing and were used by all water sports lovers.
How clothing warms us up?
When you think about what is a wetsuit, think of layered clothing. The idea for layer-designed wetsuits came from clothing. For instance, on a cold winter’s day, you will be better off wearing a few layers of thinner clothes rather than just one thick layer. This is because thinner layers tend to trap warm air in between them and keep your body temperature higher.
Why Does Layering Work?
Based on the simple rule of physics called the second law of thermodynamics, heat flows from warmer objects to colder ones and not vice versa. So, if you’re standing outside at 8°C and your body is 37°C, then heat will travel from your body into the cold air, cooling you off quickly. The same happens with the water. When you’re in cold water, your body rapidly starts to cool. That rate of cooling depends on the difference between your body temperature and the temperature of your surroundings. So, the colder the water, the faster you lose energy.
Trapping warm air between layers of materials is called insulation. This is done with clothes, but also when buildings are built, insulation is applied in the walls and roof so that warm air is trapped and the rooms don’t cool off quickly.
Trapping warmth. With your body at 37°C, even a water of 18°C is a shock to your body if unprepared. Usually, open waters are colder than that, which is when wetsuits come to help. Made of neoprene, this rubber-like material keeps you warm even in frigid waters, depending on its thickness. So the thicker the suit is, the colder the water can be.
Buoyancy. Another benefit of the wetsuits is the air bubbles built in that keep you warm in the water by holding on to the warm air flowing from your body out. These air pockets add buoyancy that keeps you afloat on the surface easily, which allows you to remain higher in water. The higher you are, the easier you’ll swim, which means wetsuits add speed to your performance too. And who doesn’t like more speed?
Higher hydrodynamics. Wetsuits are coated with SCS or Super Composite Skin. This finish repels water from your suit allowing you to be lighter and faster in the water. The less water you have on you, the warmer you’ll be.
Wetsuits keep your inner core warm because if you swim or paddle in colder waters and your body cools off enough to catch hypothermia, your core doesn’t warm up again, and you can die in a few minutes. You can survive in cold air longer than you can in cold waters. This is because water is very different from the air when it comes to molecules and temperatures.
Air, like gas, is thin, and water is dense. So when you are in the water, more water molecules surround your body, and they carry away your heat 25-40 times faster than the same temperature air. So, even if the water is just like the air outside, you may feel warm and comfortable outside but freezing in the water. It is because water is ferrying heat away from your body like a conveyor belt.
What is a wetsuit and how does neoprene help?
So, what’s so good about neoprene, you may ask. Trust me when I say, you put on a wetsuit, and it’s a game-changer. You see, wetsuits are constructed with a multiple layering system containing one layer of neoprene too.
Chemistry was never really my strong side. I believe this does not matter that much to you, too, so we won’t go into the details of how this carbon-based organic chemical is made of repeating building blocks called monomers, which trap heat more efficiently than any other material, even rubbers.
But what you need to know instead is that neoprene is a foam rubber with a cellular structure that has nitrogen gas bubbles trapped inside it. And, as I said before, these air bubble pockets make for a particularly good heat insulator.
This means that if you are swimming or paddling in warm waters, sure, you can get away without wearing a wetsuit, or wearing a shortie – wetsuit cut off at the arms and legs. However, when surfing, swimming, or diving for more than a few minutes in colder water, then a full-length wetsuit is worth it. And trust me when I say it pays off since you will be wearing this suit for approx. 8–9 months of the year.
What is a wetsuit: The wetsuit design
When searching for what is a wetsuit, remember its design. The wetsuit works so well because of its design with multiple insulating layers between your body and the cold water.
While each wetsuit is a story on its own, most of them are made of multiple layering of rubber materials to trap and reflect heat.
Some are even lined with a thin layer of metal, such as titanium or copper, to reflect your body heat back inside. This is extremely helpful if you’re in frigid waters.
The layering design of the wetsuit allows for a small amount of water to enter through the first layers and keeps it there while your body warms it up. Then, this warm water, along with the multiple layering of the wetsuit, work together like an all-over body heater.
When looking for what is a wetsuit, these are the layers you most typically will find in one:
A layer of nylon or other soft fabric that will stop the neoprene from rubbing and chafing onto your body. You may even want to wear a separate rash vest that will provide some extra insulation but will also keep the neoprene further from your body for a more comfortable feeling.
A thin layer of a heat-reflecting material such as titanium, copper, silver, magnesium, or aluminum. These will bring back the heat as it leaves your body towards the colder water.
A thick layer of neoprene that contains bubbles of nitrogen which trap warm air and prevent it from leaving your body. As I said before, this is one of the essential segments of a wetsuit.
A durable outer finishing that repels water and is abrasion-resistant.
How a wetsuit keeps the water out and the warmth in
You see, when you go into the water, initially, your wetsuit should seep a little water and trap it. After a short while, you warm it up, and then that water needs to stay inside at all times. If the water goes out and new comes in, then you’re always in contact with fresh cold water.
This way, it would be like you are not wearing any suit at all. So, keeping the warm water inside is vital when it comes to controlling the temperature and staying comfortable in cold waters.
Then, there’s another segment that’s also key in the designing of a wetsuit—the seams.
The seams that hold the separate panels of neoprene are held together with a special waterproof tape and are blind-stitched, not going all the way through the material. This is why there are stitch holes on the inside of a suit, but you won’t see joints or holes on the outside. And that is the way your neoprene wetsuit holds in the same warm water and keeps the cold water outside.
That is also the reason why wetsuits have tight-fitting cuffs and legs.
Various wetsuit types
Quality isn’t the only thing that separates one wetsuit from the other. There are different types of wetsuits made for seasons or activity types.
For instance, if you are a water sports lover and no winter can stop you, you would need to buy a winter “steamer” wetsuit.
These wetsuits have an upper chest neoprene section made of a 5mm thick neoprene. Then, there are the other thinner layers of only 3mm. Surely, you might think, the thicker the wetsuit is, the warmer it will keep you. And the warmer you are, the longer you can stay in the water. That may be the case. However, the reason why they don’t make super-thick wetsuits is that they lose flexibility and practicality.
Your wetsuit will be much heavier, and it will be harder for you to move in the water.
Then, there are the other wetsuits made for the warmer seasons that will still keep you safe from water but are a bit thinner, so they allow for more movement.
The long-sleeve wetsuits that cover your arms and legs are called steamers, while the other ones that cover your torso and are with short legs and sleeves are called shorties.
Of course, there is additional gear for super-cold waters like neoprene gloves, boots, socks, and hoods.
While these are all great to discuss and include in your winter water activities, I feel like I will stretch this post on what is a wetsuit too much. So let’s leave it for another post at another time.
In the meantime, if you have any additional questions on what is a wetsuit or any other water sport or gear, feel free to contact me by leaving a comment below or at my social accounts – Facebook or Instagram.
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