The Different Types of Wetsuits

Wetsuits exist primarily to provide insulation against cold temperatures in the water. To achieve this goal, the two main characteristics used to classify various types of wetsuits are body coverage and thickness. Additional warming features can include reflective linings. Aside from their insulating capability, these suits can also provide protection against other water hazards. With the wide variety of possible combinations, it's easiest to classify wetsuits according to what activities they'll be used for.

Scuba Diving

The wetsuit was originally developed for the purpose of underwater diving. With a much greater density than air, even slightly cool water can quickly draw too much heat out of a person submerged in it. In the early 1950s, inventors like Hugh Bradner figured that a foam version of a flexible synthetic material like neoprene should provide insulation without compromising a swimmer's freedom of movement. The trapped bubbles of nitrogen gas in the material create dead air spaces with low heat conductivity. Because scuba diving allows more exposure to cold water, a full suit called a steamer is used on an occasion like a Key West dive. This type of suit completely covers the arms and legs. It can also use neoprene foam up to seven millimeters thick. Some versions of the steamer also include a woven inner lining of titanium metal that reflects body heat back on the wearer for added warmth. When water temperatures are a bit higher, a springsuit can be used. This type resembles a steamer but with short sleeves and legs and a thinner layer of material.


Because surfing, water skiing, and other sports at the water's surface expose participants to air more than to water, lighter wetsuits are often preferred. While steamers can be used, springsuits are usually better adapted to these sports because of their wider range of motion. Another popular choice is the long john or farmer john suit. This type differs from a steamer in that there are no sleeves. It is favored among kayakers and canoeists because it doesn't interfere with arm movement. By the same token, it can also allow surfers greater ease while they're paddling out to the wave. Along with one-piece wetsuits, vests and jackets are also available that can be combined with various wetsuits to meet the needs of particular water sports.

Other Protection

Not all wetsuits are designed for thermal insulation. The dive skin suit is made of spandex or a similar material and provides defense against jellyfish stings, brushes against coral, and other such dangers. Because these suits have little heat-retaining capability and jellyfish can potentially sting any part of the body that's in the water, skin suits will usually cover the whole body including the arms and legs. An added benefit of the dive skin is protection from sunburn. The threats of animal stings and UV rays on a mid-summer Key West dive make this the ideal garment for these events.