Neoprene Fabric: Properties, Types, and Alternatives
Mar 01, 2023
As watersports buffs, it's likely that you rely on neoprene for your outdoor wear. They're used for wetsuits and other accessories. While this fabric has become commonplace, have you ever thought about how it's made and how long it’s been around?
What is Neoprene Fabric?
Neoprene is the generic name of the synthetic rubber product called polychloroprene, which was originally produced and trademarked by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (now known as DuPont Company) in the 1930s.
The American company developed it at a time when the world was experiencing a shortage of natural rubber. DuPont hired University of Notre Dame chemistry professor Julius Arthur Nieuwland, who invented a kind of plastic known as divinyl acetylene. Nieuwland collaborated with DuPont's team of researchers, particularly chemist Arnold Collins, to come up with a rubber-like substance that was first marketed as duprene before being renamed neoprene in 1936.
Neoprene is a mixture of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine polymers. The combination results in a material that has a higher resistance to water, oil, heat, and solvents than natural rubber. Moreover, the type of insulation it provides is comparable to what rubber and solid plastic can provide together.
As the Second World War dawned, the U.S. military cornered all local neoprene production. Its non-abrasive, tear-free and weather-proof features made it suitable for tires and other automotive products used during that time.
How is Neoprene Fabric Made?
Neoprene's raw ingredient—polychloroprene—starts out as chips that are melted, so they reach processing plants in a colorless liquid form.
Once they arrive in factories, additives are mixed with the liquid for elasticity and other properties before being baked in industrial ovens until they harden. The neoprene "loaf" that comes out of the process is then cut into slices (thickness can range from 3mm to 5mm) by an industrial machine. These sliced pieces are what go to clothing manufacturers.
Manufacturers trace patterns on them before cutting them into shapes. Several of these shapes are then sewn together to create an outfit, which gets sprayed for waterproofing or fireproofing.
Is Neoprene a Type of Cotton?
No, neoprene isn't a type of cotton. It also doesn't contain any cotton. However, neoprene can be used as a coating for cotton cloth to make it resistant to flame, water, and aging.
Cotton is also one of the base materials for making spandex—another stretchy fabric that's also used for watersports wear—besides nylon and wool.
What is the Difference between Neoprene and Polyester?
Neoprene fabric is typically sandwiched between other types of cloth, which serve as a lining on one or both of its sides. Polyester is one of the popular linings in single (inside) or double-lined (inside and outside) neoprene wetsuits, besides nylon, spandex, or a combination of the three.
Neoprene and polyester make a good combination because they're both durable, flexible, and quick drying. However, polyester is thinner and isn't known to offer UV protection the way neoprene can. Most polyester swimsuits (especially the lower range suits) contain latex, which can cause an allergic reaction.
Neoprene vs. Scuba Fabric
Scuba fabric is often referred to as fashion neoprene but it actually has no neoprene content. Scuba fabric is a double-knit fabric—a blend of polyester with spandex or polyester with Lycra fibers. This results in an elastic type of cloth with a smooth surface like neoprene, only thinner. It creates graceful folds, making it ideal for dance clothing.
Is Neoprene a Breathable Fabric?
Traditional neoprene isn't breathable. But it can easily warm the skin. That's why holes are punched on this type of fabric when they're used to make face masks and tote bags.
How is Neoprene Fabric Used?
Characteristics of Neoprene
Neoprene has a wide variety of applications due to the following attributes:
Neoprene is resistant to heat and cold. It can tolerate temperatures between -50 to 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Beyond this temperature range, it will harden instead of melting.
It's also thermo-regulating, retaining the heat it absorbs from your body.
High oil resistance
Its high resistance to oil, solvent, and greases makes it effective against fire or the spread of flame.
Stretchy and tear-resistant
Neoprene is elastic enough to survive tears when it comes into contact with abrasive surfaces. At the same time, it can stretch and recover to its original shape after compression.
Compatibility with other fabrics
Neoprene bonds well with polyester, nylon, or recycled versions of these fabrics.
Sports and Other Practical Usage
These unique properties make neoprene suitable for watersports attire and gear. Because it can endure more extreme temperatures and environments compared to rubber, the fabric is used for:
- Accessories such as shoes, booties, hoods and gloves
- Scuba gear
- Kayak or boating spray skirts
- Fly fishing waders
Neoprene fabrics are also used for other apparel such as sports bras, gym pants, and cycling chamois. Meanwhile, neoprene foam can be found in elbow and knee pads.
Some fashion brands have included slimming underwear, jackets, dresses, suit skirts, pants, and belts in their listing of neoprene products.
A wide array of daily consumer and industrial products also feature neoprene:
- Face masks (usually with valve for breathability)
- Electronics covers and cases
- Koozies (insulating sleeves for bottled or canned beverage)
- Yoga mats
- Coating for hand weights
- Backpacks, handbags, clutches
- Car seats and covers
- Wire and cable insulation
- Fan belts
- Automotive and industrial gaskets
- Load-bearing pads in construction
Who Popularized the Wetsuit?
Various historical accounts point to at least five people as the personalities that inspired the development of the recreational neoprene wetsuit. These men's efforts opened doors for the creation of other neoprene products. They are:
Physicist Hugh Bradner and his colleagues at the University of California-Berkeley Radiation Lab set out to improve the U.S. Navy frogman's suit in 1951. He submitted his designs to the government but their testing and mass production didn't materialize.
Bradner received word that the Navy chose another design due to fears that his concept would make swimmers more detectable by underwater sonar. Some reports say that the physicist tried to patent his design but it was rejected. The Patent Office said that it was too similar to a flight suit.
Bev Morgan and Meistrell brothers
Bob and Bill Meistrell had joined the U.S. Army before deciding to invest in the surf shop business of diver Bev Morgan in California. Morgan reportedly learned about Bradner's design from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Morgan used it to make suits that were improved year after year. They were eventually sold under the twin brothers' Body Glove label.
Jack O'Neill served as a Navy pilot in World War 2 before opening a surf shop that would become today's famous O'Neill surfwear brand. He started making neoprene vests from his garage in California. When they sold better than the surfboards, he went on to make long Johns, jackets, and others.
What is the Best Neoprene Fabric for Wetsuits?
You can choose between open and closed-cell suits, depending on your type of watersport or activity. To make your decision easier, it’s helpful take a closer look at the structure of neoprene fabric.
Once neoprene is cut up into sheets, the tiny air bubbles or cells in the material open up. The process creates millions of micro suction cups across the fabric’s surface. These cells stay open if the neoprene fabric has no inner lining—hence, the name open-cell suit.
This type of neoprene material sticks directly onto your skin like watertight seals, keeping water from coming in contact with your skin. As a result, an open-cell suit offers more warmth than a closed-cell suit. So-called smooth skin suits are open-cell neoprene with a rubbery finish on the chest and lower back. Their glossy exterior repels the wind and wicks water.
Open-cell neoprene is recommended for freedivers and spearfishing enthusiasts who go deep into the water, where the temperature gets colder. The downside of open-cell outfits is that you need to wet or lubricate them first before wearing them.
Lined wetsuits cover or close off these open cells. Closed-cell suits leave a tiny gap for a thin layer of water to come in between your skin and the material. But thanks to your body heat, the water that enters your outfit will warm up and keep your skin warm as well. Most surfers’ fullsuits and springsuits are made of closed-cell neoprene. The lining slides on the skin more easily and helps slow down the cracking and splitting of the fabric.
Scuba divers also rely on the durable fabric of closed-cell suits. Double-lined neoprene scuba fabric can withstand the constant rubbing of various equipment against their outfits.
Some brands use fabric with a middle layer of perforated neoprene, which traps air in this foam core. This boosts insulation without making the material thicker.
In the end, you’ll have to factor in thickness when choosing either open or closed-cell suits. Consider your personal cold temperature threshold and the local water and wind conditions in your area when making a choice.
When shopping for kids’ wetsuits, neoprene with a 2mm to 3mm thickness is the most popular. They’re stretchy and easy enough to wear compared to thicker suits. But again, you have to note the temperature at your local swim or surf site.
What Different Types of Neoprene Fabric are There?
Neoprene can also be classified according to its base material. For a long time, the industry relied on synthetic neoprene alone. This neoprene type uses petroleum and oil-based chemicals substances styrene and butadiene were used as the main ingredient.
But new technologies have paved the way for the production of organic neoprene. In the 1960s, Japan's Yamamoto Corp invented a special process that extracted calcium carbonate from limestone. Calcium carbonate was then mixed with the main neoprene compound—chloroprene—instead of oil to make limestone-based rubber chips. These chips are melted and infused with air bubbles before they're baked into a block of neoprene foam.
Limestone has a higher micro-cell structure (94% cell penetration) than oil-based neoprene (60% to 70%). As a result, limestone neoprene has low water penetration and absorption, making it dry very quickly. Some companies have trademarked their limestone neoprene products. Matuse Inc. of the U.S. adopted the name Geoprene for its line of neoprene items.
Bioprene is another type of organic neoprene. It uses seashell or oyster shell powder to make neoprene.
What Fabric is Similar to Neoprene?
The following swimwear fabrics share some characteristics with neoprene but have unique qualities:
Elastane (same as the spandex fiber used for Lycra products) is stretchy like neoprene. It can retain its elasticity longer than neoprene and offers more breathability. Elastane is moisture-wicking (can easily absorb and disperse sweat into the air), not waterproof like neoprene.
Lexcell or Yulex
Natural rubber is used for Lexcell, which is jointly produced by Yulex and Patagonia. It's considered as durable and flexible as neoprene but eco-friendlier.
If you find yourself allergic to neoprene, Thermocline is a good alternative. The fabric uses Econyl or recycled nylon from fishing nets abandoned at sea. It's breathable and moisture-wicking compared to neoprene. It's more lightweight and easier to fold but pricier.
How Does Neoprene Fabric Impact the Environment?
Petrochemical-based neoprene isn't considered eco-friendly due to the pollutants—chloroprene, benzene, and formaldehyde—that are released into the air during production. A non-biodegradable product, neoprene also releases greenhouse gases during its slow decomposition process.
Limestone neoprene is regarded as a greener alternative although the rock is a non-renewable resource. What makes it more sustainable is its long lifespan, which keeps it out of the landfill longer. A high-quality suit can last between four and ten years. Its lifespan depends on how often and how long you wear it each time. Its extended exposure to chlorine and heat can cause it to stiffen and deteriorate sooner.