Wetsuits: The Wonders Of Insulation

The wetsuit is a staple of many sports and pastimes. Athletes use them in scuba diving, surfing, windsurfing and other water sports. Although no single individual is credited with the invention of these garments, they have been used by hydro-friendly athletes since the early 1950s. A common misconception about wetsuits is that they keep the wearer warm by keeping him or her dry. In actuality, wetsuits are designed to help preserve heat by trapping a layer of water against the skin. That layer is warmed by the individual's body heat, causing it to act as an insulator. All wetsuits of varying construction and application operate on this same basic principle.

Wetsuits can be divided into those intended for warm water and those intended for cold. Warm and cold, in this situation, are relative terms; it is up to the wearer to determine the cutoff between warm and cold water. Wetsuits designed for warm water are usually made from thin, open-cell neoprene, a kind of synthetic rubber that makes an excellent insulator. These suits provide only limited thermal protection, but it is enough to allow the wearer to contend with the (relatively) cold water.

Wetsuits intended for cold water are made from closed-cell neoprene and have seams that do not leak; these watertight seams are achieved through taping. The tape is a strong nylon cloth with a thin but solid waterproof rubber backing. The tape is applied to the seam along the inside of the suit and then bonded to the neoprene. The watertight seams and closed-cell neoprene allow the cold water wetsuits to effectively trap a layer of water that can be warmed by body heat. Some newer wetsuits use Merino wool or titanium fibers for added warmth. Cold water wetsuits are usually effective in water as cold as 45 deg F.

A wetsuit needs to be formfitting in order to function properly. If the suit is too loose, the water between the suit and the body will constantly escape, taking the body's heat with it. Wetsuits come in a variety of styles that cover different amounts and portions of the body. Some wetsuits are not suits at all, but rather individual tops or bottoms. Of those that are actually suits, some have lower portions that cover the whole leg, while others cover only the upper portion. Similarly, wetsuits can have no sleeves, short sleeves or long sleeves. Any combination of upper and lower body coverage is possible, so athletes can tailor their wetsuits to suit their needs and styles.

Wetsuits are usually described in terms of thickness. For the most part, the thicker the suit, the more thermal protection it provides. Thicker suits are generally less flexible; however, new technologies are now producing more pliable neoprene, so wetsuits are becoming thinner while still providing the same amount of thermal protection. Wetsuits can also provide physical protection. Even if an athlete is swimming in water warm enough to make a wetsuit unnecessary, he or she may still chose to don one. Wetsuits provide a reasonable amount of protection against some water hazards, such as jellyfish and coral, so they are often used even if not strictly necessary.


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