If you're new to surfing or water sports or are just looking for the right attire to wear to the beach you might be wondering whether you should opt for a rash guard or a wetsuit and what is the best item to invest your money into.
While on the surface it's simply a matter of temperature and whether or not you need to keep yourself warm there are also a few other factors that determine whether a rash guard or wetsuit will be the better option for you.
Generally speaking a rash guard is designed for warmer weather and water temperatures while a wetsuit will keep you warm in colder temperatures. Both protect you from UV rays but rash guards are also more comfortable and casual while wetsuits are more durable and come in more lengths and varieties.
Rash guards are both for use during water sports as well as lazing around the pool or having a casual day at the beach. Wetsuits are mostly used for water sports such as surfing, diving, kiteboarding etc and are rarely worn casually at the beach or at the pool.
Understanding exactly what item is suited for what type of activities you're doing will help you decide what is best for you – a rash guard, a wetsuit or maybe something in between.
The Main Differences Between A Rash Guard and Wetsuit
The main differences between a rash guard and a wetsuit is whether or not it's insulated, the fabric it's made from and the shapes/designs.
A Rash Guard Is Mainly Just For Sun Protection Plus Casual Swimming
A rash guard is generally made from spandex/elastane and nylon or polyester.
A rash guard's primary purpose is UV protection and protecting your body from the harmful rays of the sun while you're at the pool, beach or doing water sports.
They are designed to be lightweight, quick drying and easy to move around in. While they will take on some water weight when wet they won't get nearly as heavy as a similar sized t-shirt. This means you can more easily swim in a rash guard compared to a t-shirt.
It's very common for kids to wear rash guards for sun protection (my kids wear theirs all the time) and it's also common for adults to wear them too.
A typical rash guard will not keep you warm and can actually make you colder in windy conditions than wearing no rash guard.
Rash guards generally come in the form of short sleeve and long sleeve t-shirts as well as singlets and for females they can be a full swimsuit covering the groin too. They are also full body rash suits but these are less common.
The secondary purpose of rash guards is to protect surfers from rashes they can get from their boards and to protect you from stingers such as blue bottles and jellyfish in the water.
Wetsuits Are Mainly Used To Keep You Warm During Active Water Sports
Wetsuits differ from rash guards in the fact that their main purpose is to keep you warm.
Yes wetsuits also protect you from UV rays, like rash guards do, and they protect you from board rash and stingers. But their primary purpose is to keep your body warm while surfing, diving or doing other water sports.
Wetsuits are made from neoprene which is a stretchy rubber that is an excellent insulator and will keep your body warm even in cold water.
Wetsuits are generally full body suits (not just a top) and range from a “short john/jane” (short legs and singlet top) up to a full “steamer” (full length arms and legs). Whereas rash guards are generally just a top.
Divers and surfers wear wetsuits to stay warm for hours on end in water that would otherwise make them cold and shivering rather quickly.
Depending on how cold the water is and what sport you're doing wetsuits range from approximately 1mm in thickness to up to 7mm or more for extremely cold (sub freezing) temperatures.
Surfers and divers will opt for a rash guard over a wetsuit when the water is warm as you can actually get too hot in a wetsuit in warm water or on a warm day.
It's like choosing whether to wear a t-shirt or a sweater for the day. It depends on the temperature outside.
Wetsuits are also much more constricting than rash guards and the thicker the wetsuit the warmer it will be but also the more constricting it will be on your body and the less ease of movement you will have.
Wetsuits are not commonly worn by adults around the pool or at the beach for casual swimming. Once you're out of the water leaving a wetsuit on will often make you too hot, while leaving a rash guard on you'll be fine.
However, it's not uncommon to see kids wearing wetsuits while swimming in a cold pool or at the beach on a cold day.
You Can Also Get Insulated Rash Guards
To make matters slightly more confusing there's also the insulated rash guard which has the same form as a rash guard (it's just a top not a full body suit) but it's insulated like a wetsuit.
Insulated rash guards are worn when the water is slightly too cold for a regular rash guard but it's too warm for a full wetsuit. Kind of like wearing a long sleeve t-shirt when it's a bit chilly outside but a sweater would make you too hot.
Insulated rash guards are usually made from a thinner neoprene of around 1-3mm but can go thicker in some circumstances.
Rash guards are usually paired with board shorts for males and females or just swimsuits for females. Insulated rash guards can also be worn under wetsuits to increase warmth or to make the wetsuit tighter giving it a better fit.
Like wetsuits they are generally worn when doing active water sports and are only worn casually on the beach on cold or windy days.
What Temperature Should You Wear a Rash Guard vs a Wetsuit?
Whether you should wear a rash guard or a wetsuit generally depends mainly on the water temperature. However, the outside temperature and wind also play a major role in whether you should wear a rashie or a wetty.
On cold windy days you might get cold in a rash shirt even if the water temperature is quite high and visa versa on hot sunny days with no wind a rash shirt may serve you better than a wetsuit even if the water is a little bit colder.
Below is a rough guide on what you should choose depending on the water temperature and outside conditions, but make sure to use your own judgement:
|Water Temp.||Hot/Sunny Day||Cold/Windy Day|
|>72ºF/22ºC||Rash Guard||Insulated Rash Guard|
|65-75ºF/18-24ºC||Insulated Rash Guard||1-2mm Wetsuit|
|62-68ºF/14-17ºC||2-3/2mm Springsuit/Steamer||2-3/2mm Steamer (maybe Boots/Gloves)|
|52-58ºF/11-14ºC||4/3-5/4/3mm Steamer||4/3-5/4/3mm Steamer + Boots/Gloves/Hood|
|43-52ºF/6-11ºC||5/4-5/4/3 mm Steamer + Boots/Gloves/Hood||6/5-7mm+ Steamer + Boots/Gloves/Hood|
|<42ºF/6ºC||6/5-7mm+ Steamer + Boots/Gloves/Hood||6/5-7mm+ Steamer + Boots/Gloves/Hood|
Which Is More Expensive: Rash Guards or Wetsuits?
Wetsuits are generally much more expensive than rash guards. Rash guards range from $15 to $200, with average prices around $40-$60. Wetsuits range from $50 to over $1000. Average prices for a full good-quality wetsuit are generally over $200 with shorter suits being cheaper than steamers (full body suits).
When it comes to wetsuits price does make a big difference. However, the technology has come a long way and even budget wetsuits nowadays are better than expensive wetsuits were 10-20 years ago.
Unless you're a high performance athlete or going into extremely cold water an average priced wetsuit will do you just fine.
Higher priced wetsuits give you higher degrees of warmth with increased flexibility and movement.
There are a variety of different features to be aware of with wetsuits.
Most manufacturers use a rubber material known as neoprene to make wetsuits. Neoprene wetsuits vary in thickness, and the thickness of each suit determines its insulative properties.
Wetsuit thicknesses range from 1mm (.04 in) to 9mm (.35 in). The table below shows the three most common wetsuit thicknesses, and their recommended uses:
|Suit Thickness||Best Purpose|
|3 mm (.12 in)||Cool Water|
|5 mm (.2 in)||Cold Waters|
|7 mm (.3 in)||Extremely Cold Waters|
The style of wetsuit that you choose will depend on your preference and the water temperatures you intend to immerse yourself in:
- Shorties or Spring Suits – These one-piece suits come in a short-sleeve or sleeveless style with thigh or knee-high legs. They provide full torso coverage. They’re best for warmer climates.
- Full-Body Suits. Commonly referred to as “jumpers” or “steamers,” these full-body wetsuits also come in one piece. They cover the legs and arms in their entirety and typically utilize zippers along the front or back for easy wear. They come in various thicknesses for different water conditions and are best for deep diving and cold climates.
- Two-Piece Wetsuits. Unlike shorties and full-body wetsuits, two-piece wetsuits come in individual pieces (i.e., pants or shorts, short-sleeve or long-sleeve tops, etc.). These styles are a less popular choice, due to their lack of warmth and are generally for warmer condition.
- Hooded. Hoods attach to the top part of the wetsuit to prevent water from entering the collar during swimming, surfing, or diving. They also provide an additional level of UV protection and warmth to the head.
Rash Guard Features
Most rash guards have features suitable for warm water activities such as swimming, surfing, or shallow diving in temperate waters.
Rash guards are similar to swim suits in their material but offer more in the way of protection.
Here’s what they have to offer in terms of features:
Abrasion and UV Protection
Long-sleeve rash guards protect against abrasion, jellyfish stings, and UV rays. The downside is that they do not offer the insulative properties of wetsuits. You shouldn’t use a rash guard in deep or extremely cold waters without combining it with a wetsuit.
Most manufacturers create rash guards using fabric composed of:
- A combination of spandex and nylon.
These materials are thinner than neoprene, making them ideal for warm water swimming, surfing, or shallow diving. The thinner material allows for better mobility than the thicker neoprene material used to make wetsuits.
Rash guards are not a replacement for regular t-shirts. You can't wear a rash guard as a t-shirt, it looks weird. Rash guards are specifically designed to swim in.
Rash guards come in different styles for different purposes, including:
- Short-Sleeve/Long-Sleeve. Long-sleeve rash guards provide extra protection from the sun’s rays, and most people prefer them over short-sleeve designs. When wearing a short-sleeve rash guard, wear sunscreen to protect exposed skin from UV rays.
- Hooded. Rash guards with hoods provide additional sun protection and protection from the elements on cool, windy, or rainy days. These are generally worn by divers, not surfers.
- Mock or High-Collar. These high-neck collars keep the back of the neck covered, protecting it from sunburn and abrasion.
Pros of Wetsuits and Rash Guards
Looking at the pros and cons of wetsuits and rash guards can also explain their differences. Here’s a detailed roundup of each garment's good and the not-so-good:
- Thermal Protection. The primary difference between wetsuits and rashguards is that wetsuits provide insulation, allowing the swimmer, surfer, or diver to retain body heat. This is especially important in cold, deep waters or when participating in watersports during the colder months. On the other hand, thinner suits, such as shorties, can be worn for shallow diving or warm water activities.
- Buoyancy. Neoprene increases buoyancy, allowing surfers, divers, and swimmers to stay afloat more easily. As a result, they can reduce energy expenditure.
- Long Dry Time. Wetsuits take hours to dry and require a designated wetsuit hanger to prevent creasing, stretching, or tearing of the neoprene material. Additionally, damp wetsuits are challenging to put on and incredibly uncomfortable to slide into during winter.
- Friction Rashes. Wetsuits may cause friction rashes in the armpits, crotch, or other areas where skin regularly rubs against the neoprene. To prevent this, you can use lubricating gels or creams.
Rash Guard Pros
- Short Dry Time. Unlike wetsuits, rash guards dry in a very short time because Lycra, nylon, spandex, and polyester are thinner than neoprene.
- Comfort. Soft spandex rash guards generally feel comfortable against the skin, which may improve the overall experience when diving, surfing, or swimming. Additionally, rash guards do not restrict movement.
- Make Wetsuits Easier to Put On. When worn under a wetsuit, Lycra, nylon, and polyester can make sliding into the neoprene material much easier. It’s best to choose a tighter fitting rash guard for this purpose, as loose materials may create uncomfortable bulging under the wetsuit.
Rash Guard Drawbacks
- No Thermal Protection. While they can prevent sunburn, rashes, and jellyfish stings, rash guards do not provide thermal protection because the materials used in their construction do not offer insulative properties. As a result, wearing only a rash guard in cold waters could cause hypothermia.
- No Additional Buoyancy. Rash guards and their materials do not offer additional buoyancy, so you’re likely to expend more energy when wearing a rash guard versus a wetsuit.