How Do Wetsuits Work: The Science Behind Them

How Do Wetsuits Work: The Science Behind Them
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Have you ever been diving or surfing and wondered how your wetsuit keeps you warm? When you’re 12 meters underwater or on top of your surfboard, it’s really not the time to wonder how wetsuits work.

Is it the water that keeps you warm or the suit itself? Actually, it’s a combination of factors! If you, like many other people, have ever wondered and asked, “How do wetsuits work?”, then you’re in luck as we’re about to tell you not only how they work but also what makes them work so well.

Why and How Do Wetsuits Work

Wetsuits are primarily made from a material called neoprene, which is a synthetic rubber that retains great flexibility in a wide temperature range and provides excellent insulation against the cold that is hugely important when diving or surfing.

The reason why neoprene is such a good insulator is that it is made up of tiny closed cells full of air acting as a barrier between your body and the cold water outside the suit.  The structure of neoprene is the reason why it is also extremely buoyant, so divers have to wear weights to help them descend.

1. The Layers

There are usually a few different layers in addition to the neoprene that will make your wetsuit highly durable and more comfortable to wear, as well as potentially enhance your wetsuits ability to keep you warm.

  • Comfort Layer: First up, close to your body will be a protective layer of nylon or something similar that will be smoother and softer against your skin than neoprene, which could potentially chafe and leave you with an unsightly post-dive or surf rash.
  • Heat-Reflecting Layer: Next up, some wetsuits have a thin layer made of some kind of heat-reflecting material to further increase your ability to retain body heat and stay warm.
  • Neoprene Layer: Depending on what type of wetsuit you are using, the neoprene layer can differ in elasticity and thickness, but this is the layer that makes a wetsuit, a wetsuit.
  • Outer Layer: The outer layer will be made of something hard wearing and durable to protect your wetsuit from small abrasions and tears that could happen easily underwater around rocks, coral reefs, or wrecks.

2. The Science

Water carries heat away from your body more than 20 times faster than air. Although you might be comfortable walking along the beach while it’s 26/79 degrees out, you won’t enjoy the same comfort if you are swimming in an ocean that has the same temperature.

Considering your body temperature is around 36/97 degrees, the water molecules around you will draw the energy or heat from your body at a faster rate than you will be able to replace it, without any protection.

Your air-pocket-containing neoprene wetsuit will conduct heat away from your body slower than the surrounding water, providing you thermal insulation from the cold. It is also designed on the premise of keeping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit.

Your body temperature will then lose heat to the water inside your suit very quickly (warming the trapped water up), but as long as your wetsuit is a good fit, the warm water will stay close to your body, and you shouldn’t lose too much heat, too quickly.

3. The Fit

The fit of a wetsuit is hugely important to whether the wetsuit is going to do its job or not. Ultimately, while it will, of course, let water in through the seams and neck/arm/leg holes, you want it to prevent from flushing as much as possible. Flushing is when gaps are created between your body and the wetsuit, allowing fresh (cold) water inside.

Ideally, your wetsuit should be tight fitting all over as each flush will result in further heat loss. Thanks to scientific advances, you can get wetsuits these days that are so stretchy and snug fitting that you can climb in from the small neck opening!

4. The Thickness

Wetsuits are available in varying thicknesses from 2mm to 6mm, and the greater the thickness means the higher the warmth. It is essential to know the expected water temperature at the sites and dress accordingly.

With greater thickness also comes decreased flexibility so to get past this problem, wetsuits most often will be made from one level of thickness for your torso and another for your arms and legs. The thickness of any given wetsuit is usually indicated by a set of two or three numbers with dashes in between them.

The first number will show how thick the torso area is, the second will represent either your legs or your legs and arms or a third number will represent what your arms would be wearing if it is different to your legs. Varying the thickness of the wetsuit in different areas will allow you the greatest warmth combined with the greatest flexibility while doing water activities.

5. The Seams

The seams of a wetsuit are given special attention as there’s no point in having all this fantastic insulating material on your body if cold water can just come in and out as it pleases via the joins! There are a couple of different methods of making them watertight. The blind-stitching method involves first sticking the pieces of wetsuit together with a particular kind of waterproof tape.

Secondly, the suits are blind-stitched, meaning stitches are made without going through the material from one side to another but just in the inner part of the material, so they can’t be seen from the outside and therefore preventing water coming in through the holes the stitches would have made).

Thank You, Science!

The wetsuit is a marvelous piece of kit that has been in use for around 70 years already. How do wetsuits work? Well, thanks to science, really! In understanding the laws of thermodynamics, scientists have invented, developed, and improved the materials used to insulate your body against the cold water, and without which, we wouldn’t be diving or surfing for anywhere near as long as we are able to today. Your wetsuit works not because it gets you wet.

The insulating layer of neoprene together with the way in which the wetsuit is brought together to provide a more snug and seamless fit helps your body retain its heat in cold water because it works hard at keeping fresh cold water out.

If you’re thinking of buying a wetsuit of your own, then we hope that your new-found knowledge in how they work will help you when choosing the right wetsuit for you.

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