How to

8 September 2016

How Do Wetsuits Work?

As any experienced surfer or diver will know, plunging into cold waters without a wetsuit is just asking for trouble. Cold water immersion carries has a great number of risks, from the initial shock that may impair your breathing, to the vasoconstriction leading to incapacitation of the muscles, and of course the ever-looming threat of hypothermia.

Wetsuits counteract these effects by insulating your body from the cold water around you, but how do they actually work?

If you had never seen a wetsuit before, and were offered one before a dip into arctic waters, you would most likely laugh it off with a retort along the lines of, “What’s that flimsy thing meant to do?”

As it turns out, a lot more thought goes into the design of your wetsuit than you may think, and in reality, it is far from flimsy.

The most important component of a wetsuit is the layer of neoprene, a form of foam rubber polymer which contains trapped nitrogen gas within its own structure, making it a particularly good insulator. This is generally topped with a water and abrasion-resistant layer in order to minimise wear. Before you even get to the neoprene, however, there’s plenty more layers protecting you from the chilly sea. Let’s start from the skin and work our way outwards.

The first insulating layer (ignoring your own skin of course), isn’t actually part of the wetsuit at all. You see, a decent wetsuit is purposefully designed to let in a thin layer of water, which sits between your skin and the suit itself.

Taking advantage of the laws of thermodynamics, your body quickly regulates the temperature of the small amount of water to match your own body temperature. This effectively puts another insulating layer between you and the rest of the water. It may sound illogical to intentionally let water in, but it’s a tried and tested method that’s proven to be effective in keeping you warm.

Next up is a thin layer of nylon or another comparable fabric. This serves the basic purpose of making the wetsuit comfortable to wear, preventing chaffing and other discomfort that would be caused if neoprene alone was used in the fabrication of these suits.

On top of that you’ll find a layer of heat-reflecting material, usually based on a form of metal oxide, which helps to keep you warm by reflecting some of the radiated heat back toward you.

Atop the reflective layer you’ll find the thick neoprene and its protective coating that we discussed earlier in this article, and that’s basically it!

One important note to remember, however, applies specifically to the layer of water held under the suit. If your wetsuit is poorly designed or simply too loose fitting, this inner layer of water will continually flush in and out, refreshing itself with dose after dose of cold water. This will, for obvious reasons, make your wetsuit entirely ineffective, so make sure you buy one that fits properly.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.