If you were ever involved in any kind of on-the-water sports, the chances are you’ve used – or, at the very least, seen other people use – neoprene-made gear. Neoprene and watersports go well like peanut butter and jelly.
But even if you did, how much do you honestly know about this material? What is neoprene? Is neoprene waterproof? Is it safe? And what’s it used for – besides the obvious?
The questions keep piling up, huh? Well, I’d say it’s about time you got some answers!
What Is Neoprene?
Neoprene – also known as polychloroprene – was one of the first synthetic alternatives to rubber ever made. As you can imagine, this new material was a pretty big deal back in the 1930s.
Well, the world was kind of going through a shortage of natural rubber during the 1920s. If you pair that with high demand, you get rising prices.
The need for alternative materials became increasingly apparent.
So, Wallace Carothers – who, at the time, was working for the DuPont company as a chemist – figured out a way to create the rubber-like substance we now know as neoprene.
Initially, it was marketed as “duprene,” but by the time World War II began, it was renamed – and has been exclusively manufactured for military use. You actually couldn’t buy it in stores the way you and I can – not until the war was over, that is.
And the rest is history:
Neoprene turned out to be generally stronger and harder than natural rubber – while also being more resistant to water, oil, and solvents and better at providing insulation.
And once it reached the general market, people were quick to embrace it, using it for everything from wetsuits and waders to – get this – Jeep tires.
I’ll get to that later, though.
What Is Neoprene Made Of?
Okay, that brief history lesson aside, what is neoprene made of, anyway? Is neoprene rubber – or is it something else entirely?
How’s your chemistry? I’m asking because – well, this section’s about to get a lot more technical and science-y than you might expect. And I’d just like to know whether you’d be able to keep up or not.
Of course, I’m not much of a chemist myself. I’m not pro
Well, technically speaking, yes, it is a form of rubber – albeit a synthetic one.
The technical term used for this foamed synthetic rubber is “polychloroprene,” mainly composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms.
I’m afraid the answer’s not that simple, though.
For starters, there are two kinds of neoprene – or, rather, two ways it’s produced:
- Oil-based method, which is the more popular of the two and uses Butadiene (derived from petroleum) to produce neoprene
- Limestone-based method, which is generally considered more eco-friendly and uses acetylene (derived from calcium carbonate) in the process
Both start with the same chemical reaction – I’ll explain it in a bit – but the actual manufacturing processes and, more importantly, their results differ:
Neoprene that was created using the limestone process has a closed-cell structure and higher density, which also ensures increased durability, heat retention, elasticity, and decreased water absorption.
How Is Neoprene Made?
ud to admit it – but it took me quite a bit to understand the whole process.
Anyway, here’s the short version of how neoprene is made:
Neoprene is made through the free-radical polymerization of chloroprene – a chemical reaction in which single molecules are linked into multi-molecule groups, forming polychloroprene chips.
These chips are then melted, mixed with other foaming agents and carbon pigment, and baked until the resulting mixture expands – and becomes neoprene.
That’s as simple as I could possibly put it.
Once it does, the material is sliced up to form sheets of neoprene in various thicknesses. While we’re at it, I’d like to add that the resulting material can come in one of three “shapes”:
- Dense, solid rubber neoprene sheets
- Neoprene foam (open-cell or closed-cell)
What Is Neoprene Used For?
Given that you’re into water sports, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve already worn – or at least, seen – clothing made of neoprene material.
You see, the stretchy, water-resistant, flexible and insulating properties of waterproof neoprene make it the best choice of material for a wide range of watersports equipment. Neoprene is used in the manufacturing of items such as:
- Wet suits (by the way, the first neoprene wetsuit ever was created back in 1952, by Hugh Bradner and Jack O’Neill)
- Scuba gear
- Neoprene clothing (neoprene boots & shoes, gloves, hoods)
- Spray skirts
- Seat covers – such that seats used in kayaking or boating
That said, remember that neoprene is a mass-produced, general-purpose synthetic material that is an alternative to rubber, meaning its use is much more widespread and goes beyond watersports clothing and accessories.
You’ll find neoprene in a wide range of applications and in a variety of sectors, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Reusable face masks
- Mouse pads
- Smartphone and laptop cases
- Electrical applications (wire and cable insulation)
- Fan belts and hoses
- Bearing pads in construction
- Military applications (DuPont remains one of the US government’s biggest contractors)
- Industrial applications
You get the idea; neoprene is everywhere these days.
What Are The Benefits Of Neoprene?
Considering all the benefits of this versatile, petrochemical-based material, it’s no surprise that it found its way into different industrial applications and consumer life niches.
Here are a few of those unique benefits:
- It’s resilient to a wide range of environmental factors – including UV, ozone, and oxidation – by forming a solid barrier
- Provides excellent insulation against cold and can help retain body heat in cold water environments
- It shows great thermal stability, meaning it can be used in a wide range of temperatures – from minus 40 degrees to 248 degrees Fahrenheit
- Neoprene boasts strong overall chemical resistance and remains unaffected by a range of chemicals, such as oils, solvents, and petroleum-based fuels
- Neoprene fabrics are durable and tear-resistant while still remaining quite stretchy (a plus for anyone who ever tried to put on a neoprene wetsuit)
What Are The Disadvantages Of Neoprene?
Neoprene isn’t all rainbows and butterflies; there are some disadvantages worth noting here when compared to other rubber materials, as well, including:
- Cost remains one of its main disadvantages; there are materials with similar properties at lower prices (although they can’t compete with the complete range of characteristics neoprene offers)
- It degrades and absorbs water over time
- Neoprene isn’t resistant to oxidizing acids, ketone, certain hydrocarbons, and other chemicals
- It’s not the most environmentally-friendly choice of material
Can Neoprene Be Washed?
Considering that it’s used for water-related equipment – such as scuba diving, kayaking, surfing – and protective wear for skiing, your neoprene-based gear tends to come in contact with things like sweat, saltwater, water treatment chemicals, and other grime.
And while neoprene is created to be durable, the truth is, if you don’t care for it and clean up the build-up dirt and grime, it might not hold up for very long.
So, to answer your question:
Yes, you can – and should – wash neoprene-based gear regularly, as in, after each use.
While there are cleaners formulated explicitly for neoprene, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that they have much of an edge in terms of cleaning power over cheaper, commonly used cleaning solutions.
My advice is to stick to a mild detergent or baby shampoo; these will generally work just fine. I have to add that you should never pour the cleaner directly on the neoprene fabric.
Instead, follow these simple cleaning instructions:
- Rinse the neoprene-based item with clean water for one to two minutes right after use.
- Mix a small amount (one-half to a full teaspoon) of the cleaner in a bucket of water and use the solution to wash the neoprene. You could even fill a tub, mix a bit of shampoo in it and then gently clean the fabric, squeeze out the dirty water, and let it soak for a while.
- Ensure you rinse it thoroughly until all the suds from your cleaner are gone.
- Allow neoprene to air dry – but make sure it’s not in direct sunlight because the UV rays tend to break it down faster.
And that’s about it on neoprene cleaning.
Is Neoprene Safe?
I have to admit, this is a tricky question to answer – and it goes beyond a simple “Yes” or “No.”
So, is neoprene toxic? You see, neoprene, in itself, isn’t considered toxic. It’s the manufacturing process, during which hazardous gases are released, that makes neoprene a concern.
People with skin sensitivities might be best not to wear neoprene, though.
In 2009, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) declared neoprene the allergen of the year – and the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS) has also released statements about this material being an allergen for some people.
The chemical dialkyl thioureas leaching from neoprene has been known to cause skin irritations and contact dermatitis.
Unless you’re allergic to it, though, neoprene is generally considered safe to wear.
What about the environment, though? Could neoprene be considered safe for our planet, too? And, more specifically, is neoprene recyclable?
I’m assuming that you’re an outdoor enthusiast – and you probably care about the environment, too.
But the truth is, it’s hard to avoid certain unsustainable practices – including using kayaking gear made of non-biodegradable materials, including nylon, polyurethane, and petrochemical-derived fabric known as neoprene.
As I already mentioned, the gases released during the manufacturing process – like butadiene – are a cause of concern. Burning neoprene is another hazard worth mentioning here, as it leads to the release of hydrogen chloride – a severe respiratory and eye irritant.
And no, neoprene is not recyclable – nor is it biodegradable, which is a huge issue considering that every year, roughly 380 tons of neoprene-based products get thrown away.
Is Neoprene Waterproof?
The short-and-simple version of the answer would be – yes, neoprene is generally classified as a waterproof material. That’s part of the reason why it performs so well in extreme temperatures and environments.
What’s the not-so-simple version of the answer, you ask?
Well, neoprene can be manufactured in either open-cell or closed-cell form. Open-cell neoprene contains interconnected pockets of air that will allow gas and fluids to pass through it, meaning it technically isn’t waterproof – but it is breathable.
The amount of air inside neoprene has a direct impact on how much water can pass through it. As with a bucket with a hole, the more holes of air Neoprene contains, the more water it absorbs and the wetter the wearer becomes.
Closed-cell neoprene, on the other hand, is waterproof. It boasts a higher density – which results in better heat retention, overall durability, elasticity, and decreased water absorption.
With that said, the way neoprene is stitched and glued plays a crucial role in how well it will hold that watertight seal. That’s why blind stitching – the inside-out stitching method where the stitch doesn’t go all the way through the fabric and leaves no holes on the outside – is commonly used for waterproof neoprene clothing.
What Is Neoprene: A Brief Summary
Neoprene has a 90-year track record of proven, reliable performance as a synthetic alternative to rubber, known for its:
- Durability and tear-resistance
- Resilience to environmental factors
- Excellent insulating abilities and thermal stability
- All-around chemical resistance
- Waterproof properties
As such, neoprene has a wide range of applications and is essential for watersports equipment – especially kayaking and fishing in colder environments.