Wetsuit vs drysuit: how does a wetsuit work?

Wetsuits vs Drysuits: How do they work?

A brief guide to wetsuits and drysuits: how they work, whether they keep you dry, and which one you’ll need if you want to go surfing in cold water. The clue is in the name.

Surfing, as a rule, is a sport for people who like getting wet. And yet confusion reigns in some quarters as to whether it’s better practised in a wetsuit or in a drysuit. Hmmm.

Wetsuits vs Drysuits

Ideally, of course, you’d be wearing neither. For most of the year, however, especially here in the UK, the water isn’t warm enough to go surfing in just boardshorts or a bikini. A drysuit might keep you dry in the Atlantic or the North Sea, and it may even keep you warm, but it would be too cumbersome to allow much range or speed of movement. Wetsuits are far better… erm… suited to activities like surfing.

three surfers wearing wetsuits, not drysuits, ride a wave
Wetsuits concentrate on keeping you warm, flexible… and wet. Photo: Megan Hemsworth

Does a wetsuit keep you dry?

Wetsuits are not waterproof, and they won’t keep you dry. In fact, they’re specifically designed to get… well, wet. Wetsuits concentrate above all on keeping you warm.

How wetsuits are made is a complicated process, but the main component is typically neoprene foam, a synthetic rubber material. Certain types of drysuit also feature neoprene, but wetsuits use its lightweight and insulating properties in a very different way. A properly-fitting wetsuit allows water to enter but only in limited quantities, and only in a controlled manner.

How does a wetsuit work?

The standard answer is that wetsuits work by partially trapping a very thin layer of water between skin and wetsuit. This water is then warmed up by your own body heat, aided by the insulating properties of the neoprene (or natural rubber, depending on what the wetsuit is made of).

This is why wetsuit fit is so important. If it’s too big, that thin layer of water will be repeatedly flushed out and replaced by a whole new layer of much colder ocean brine. (It won’t be a thin layer, either.) Relatively tight seals around the wrists and ankles are important for the same reason.

But what accounts for a wetsuit’s insulating effect? And how can something that’s not waterproof retain any heat?

While wetsuits do absorb some water, and while you will get wet when you wear one, the neoprene itself is a waterproof material. Typically it’s the linings on either side of the neoprene that get wet. The water that does get into the wetsuit will do so not by penetrating the neoprene, but via openings at the wrists, ankles, neck, zips, and possibly the seams between the panels (depending on whether the latter are fully sealed).

How does neoprene work, then?

Tiny bubbles of nitrogen (air bubbles, basically) are trapped inside the neoprene foam during the manufacturing process. Moisture is effectively locked out because water droplets are too large to sneak through this grid of bubbles, which meanwhile store heat. The thicker the neoprene, the more effective the insulation.

Of course, a wetsuit also forms a barrier between your body and the outside air, protecting you from the wind and stopping cold air from getting in. Many wetsuits nowadays are also lined internally with thermal fleece materials, which (according to the marketing hype, at any rate) use moisture-wicking fibres, heat-reflecting metals, and even infrared technology to further boost warmth.

The key thing in all of this is that wetsuits are light and flexible enough to do all this without weighing you down or overly restricting your movement. And while they’re not fully waterproof, they’re sufficiently hydrophobic not to become heavy and waterlogged.

two surfers wear wetsuits, not drysuits
These guys are wearing wetsuits, not drysuits, and look how happy they are. Photo: Megan Hemsworth

How does a drysuit work?

A drysuit, on the other hand, is completely waterproof and will prevent any water at all from touching the skin. Drysuits are bulkier and more restrictive than wetsuits, and they also cost a lot more. They’re primarily used by people liable to be submerged in extremely cold water for long periods, often without moving much, like divers.

And those who hate getting wet.

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