Neoprene is a synthetic rubber with a wide variety of uses. As a fabric, neoprene often has a nylon or spandex backing on one or both sides to make it easier to put on and more comfortable against the skin. Since neoprene can be a difficult fabric to work with, most neoprene products are commercially manufactured using special sewing and seam-sealing techniques.
DuPont laboratories invented in neoprene in 1930, based on the work of chemistry professor Julius Arthur Nieuwland. The professor's research on developing synthetic rubber led DuPont scientists to create a polymerised version of chloroprene, or polychloroprene. DuPont originally named its new polychloroprene material DuPrene but changed the name to neoprene in 1936. A variety of engineers and inventors began using neoprene for wetsuits in the early 1950s.
One of the best known uses for neoprene fabric is for wetsuits in scuba diving. Neoprene is also commonly used in wading boots for fishermen since it protects the skin from cold water. Laboratory workers may use neoprene gloves to protect their hands from acids, chemicals, solvents and oils. Kayakers and people who participate in cold-weather activities may also wear waterproof neoprene gloves, sometimes lined with fleece, to protect their hands from cold water, ice and snow. Many medical support braces, such as those for ankles, wrists and knees, also use neoprene.
Neoprene fabric comes in a variety of thicknesses, generally ranging from 2 to 5 millimetres. Neoprene waders are often made from 5mm neoprene, while cold-water wetsuits may use neoprene fabric up to 7mm thick. The thicker the neoprene, the better it insulates from the cold. In contrast, neoprene suits for competitive swimmers may use fabric as thin as 1mm in areas that need to be extremely flexible, such as under the arms. Suppliers such as Seattle Fabrics, linked below, sell neoprene fabric by the square foot or in sheets that measure 51 by 82 inches.
Neoprene fabric is durable and flexible and resists tearing. It can also withstand cold temperatures as well as exposure to the sun. Neoprene fabric contains air pockets that provide excellent insulation for wetsuits, cold-wear gear and lunch boxes and beverage coolers. Neoprene is also chemically inert and resists oils, making it useful for protection while handling chemicals. Since neoprene is more fire resistant than most rubbers, it can also be used in combat gear.
Some people, especially those with allergies or sensitive skin, may experience an allergic reaction or skin irritation from wearing clothing, gloves, boots or support braces made from neoprene fabric. Although neoprene does not contain latex, people with latex allergies may also be sensitive to neoprene.