So, how do you get oil out of a wetsuit? You’d think it would be simple, right? Wrong. If you’ve ever had to clean a dirty wetsuit, you’ll know there are things you should do and things you shouldn’t, methods that work and methods that don’t.
We weren’t expecting to have to solve this slippery problem so early on in our stand up paddleboarding journey.
And certainly not so soon after not one but both of our paddle board paddles refused to come apart.
At some point, though, bad luck can happen to even the most careful of wetsuit users. Forearmed is forewarned as they say. So, if an oily wetsuit ever happens to you, or someone you know, this slightly obsessive “How To” guide will hopefully help save you some time, money and trouble.
TLDR: If you’re looking for a quick solution for “How to Get Oil Out Of A Wetsuit”, you’ll find it just below.
However, it might be worth sticking around and reading the whole thing because, in the process of researching how to get oil out of one of our own, we discovered some really fascinating stuff.
Things such as:
- Why oil and water don’t mix
- The meaning of the word “Miscibility”
- Why oil-covered seabirds might be best washed alongside your dishes – this is a slight exaggeration but we’ll come to that later
- Why rubbing your wetsuit with a LAMB CHOP could work
- Why diesel mechanics prefer Coca-Cola
And loads more.
Mostly, though, we learnt exactly why a nifty neoprene wetsuit is such a niggly nightmare to look after. Who’d have thought oil and foamed rubber could be so fascinating? Don’t answer that.
Kids might be reading this.
How to Get Oil Out Of A Wetsuit – Solved!
To get oil out of a wetsuit, the oil needs to be dissolved in water. However, as oil and water do not naturally mix, you need to use additional molecules called Surfactants. Surfactants (surface active agents) are special in that they have the ability to interact with the oil and bond with the water molecules to form an intermediate layer. This allows the oil and water to mix together more easily and, more importantly, to be rinsed clean.
Surfactants are commonly found in products such as dishwashing detergents, shampoos and liquid soap. Check the label. Look for 15-30% anionic surfactants on your dishwashing liquid.
In other cleaning products, surfactants may be in the form of ingredients such as “ammonium lauryl sulfate”, or “sodium lauryl sulfate” or “sodium laureth sulfate”.
IMPORTANT: When it comes to getting oil out of your wetsuit, the key is to use a product mild enough, in small amounts and in such a way so as not to do damage the material your wetsuit is made from.
How long you expose your wetsuit to the potentially damaging effect of chemicals will obviously be determined by the size of the oil stain you have to deal with.
The following step-by-step process should work for a small oil patch on a typical wetsuit.
If you’ve had the misfortune to swim through an oil slick or drop your wetsuit into a vat of crude diesel, additional/repeated steps may be required.
** NOTE: If your wetsuit is completely covered in oil, it’s not a good idea to flush large amounts of oily wastewater into your local sewage system. In fact, it’s almost certainly ILLEGAL. Oil in large amounts should always be disposed of properly at your local recycling centre. Check yours. They should have a facility for taking it off your hands. Unfortunately, not off your wetsuit. **
A Step-by-Step Guide for Getting Oil Out of a Wetsuit - Equipment / Items Needed
- one oily wetsuit
- a container/tub/bath large enough to submerge said oily wetsuit
- access to plenty of fresh, clean, cold or, preferably, lukewarm water
- dishwashing liquid or other mild/gentle cleaning product containing anionic surfactants e.g. Dawn, Fairy Liquid, baby shampoo
- protective handwear if necessary
- a suitable wetsuit hanger – for drying purposes
Approx Time Required
When you have all of the appropriate items to hand, the wetsuit cleaning process shouldn’t take longer than 20 – 30 mins.
The wetsuit drying process will depend on where and how you hang your wetsuit to dry. If you hang a wetsuit up to dry at room temperature, it will normally be dry in several hours.
Step 1: Turn your wetsuit inside out
So, you’ve got oil on your wetsuit.
When back on dry land, turn your wetsuit inside out to prevent the oil from accidentally touching other parts of your wetsuit, items or clothes.
It’s always best to gently remove it inside out anyway.
Step 2: Bag your wetsuit up separately
Bag up your oily wetsuit separately from all your other equipment and get it home asap.
Do NOT leave it for lengthy periods in a bag or car boot/trunk.
Because oil stains (and most stains for that matter) are best tackled before they dry.
Treat them quickly and they’re easier to remove.
Tackle them later and be prepared for a long battle.
Step 3: Find a suitable container to clean it in
Once home, find a suitable sized container to clean your oily wetsuit in.
If your wetsuit is covered in lots of oil and you have a large tub/container handy, go with that.
Otherwise, your household bath should do.
A small amount of oil won’t damage the surface and will be quickly washed away through normal domestic use.
Just make sure you get all the sand and seaweed off your wetsuit first, as it’s probably not good for your plumbing.
Step 4: Fill with sufficient water & add a small amount of solution containing anionic surfactants
Fill your bath/container up with enough cold or warm water to completely submerge your wetsuit.
DO NOT USE HOT WATER.
Although you’d normally use hot water to do the dishes or get stains out of your clothes, when it comes to wetsuits, hot water can actually damage the material your wetsuit is made from.
So, stick with cold or lukewarm water.
While the water is running, add some dishwashing detergent e.g. Fairy Liquid (UK), Dawn (US), or some other gentle cleaning solution you’ve identified as containing anionic surfactants, such as baby shampoo, liquid soap etc.
1 – 2 tablespoons of dishwashing liquid should be sufficient. Any more and you could be up to your shoulders in bubbles.
Step 5: Unbag your oily wetsuit
Once you have enough water to immerse your wetsuit, turn off your tap(s), unbag your wetsuit and turn it back the right way from inside out.
Be careful not to get oil on your clothes, floor or nearby furniture.
Step 6: Pre-treat oil stain if necessary
At this stage, depending on the size of the oil patch, it might be worth applying some of the soapy water to the stain BEFORE immersing your wetsuit completely.
That way you can clean and breakdown some of the oil BEFORE you expose the rest of your unblemished wetsuit to oily water.
Be careful not to use anything abrasive or sharp to clean the oil patch, as this could damage your wetsuit further.
For example, a brillo pad or hard bristle brush is probably fine on your dishes. On Neoprene (the vital material your wetsuit is made from) it’s a no-no.
A flannel, soft sponge or old toothbrush should be fine.
Step 7: Let your wetsuit soak for 15-20 mins
Time to get soaked. Once the oil patch has been pre-cleaned, or if you had no need to pre-clean, place your wetsuit in the soapy water and leave it to soak.
Let those sexy surfactants get to work.
15-20 mins should do the trick. Go make yourself a mug of tea or coffee.
Forget I ever used the word “sexy”.
Step 8: Agitate your wetsuit for thorough cleaning
After it has soaked for long enough, agitate your wetsuit about in the water.
This doesn’t mean pointing at it, calling it names or winding it up.
It means getting the water into and around every bit of your wetsuit just like a washing machine would.
Use gloves if you need to, or find yourself something non-sharp and of a suitable length to mix it about with.
Do this for as long as you think necessary. 5 – 10 mins should suffice.
Just make sure you gently and thoroughly knead the water into your wetsuit, getting it right into the foam layer for better cleaning.
Step 9: Rinse your wetsuit
When you think your wetsuit (or you) has had enough, empty the tub/bath.
It’s now time to properly rinse your wetsuit with fresh clean water.
Use your shower head or cold water tap and sloosh that wetsuit around.
This time it should work. The oils should wash out. Make sure you rinse really well, inside and out. Really well.
Unlike most wetsuit shampoos, which actually instruct you not to rinse to allow the product to work properly, leftover dishwashing detergent mixed with oil is best removed completely.
Step 10: Hang your wetsuit to dry PROPERLY
When thoroughly rinsed through, hang your wetsuit up to dry. Properly.
Inside out first.
This is important as the inside layers of a wetsuit are normally fabric and the outside layers rubbery, waterproof and protective.
Your wetsuit will dry quicker and better inside out.
Also, hang it folded at the waist over a slide/suit hanger.
Do NOT use a shoulder hanger.
The weight of the drying wetsuit can stretch the neoprene and affect the seams at the shoulders.
Make sure the hanger you use is wide enough to comfortably fit your folded wetsuit and that it has no sharp edges that could leave creases.
Pro Tip: Experienced wetsuit users usually hang a towel over the hanger first to provide a nice soft rounded padding.
Finally, when the inside is dry, turn the wetsuit back the right way and hang until completely dry.
All that’s left to do is give your wetsuit a quick eye and nose check over, and yourself a large oil-free pat on the back.
There you have it. A step-by-step guide on how to get oil out of a wetsuit.
You can stop here if you like, or if you’re up for learning how I got to this answer, read on.
I promise you’ll find it fun and strangely informative.
A Sticky Problem
Boats off Broadsands Beach in Torbay – Summer 2020
Our second or third paddleboarding trip out, our first major problem encountered. We’d had a great time stand up (fall down) paddleboarding out in the bay. We headed back to shore, I began to change and it was then that I noticed a patch of coffee-coloured liquid on my wetsuit leg.
For a moment, I thought I’d just trampled my way out of my wetsuit in a muddy puddle. Testing the liquid with my fingers and my nose told a different story.
It was some sort of greasy oil slick. All over the left leg and butt cheek of my brand new wetsuit.
I’m guessing it happened when paddling / falling in the water around a group of moored up sailing/speed boats just offshore.
A lot of boat owners were taking advantage of lockdown freedom to head out into the beautiful waters of Torbay.
A day spent moored off Broadsands beach in Torbay is a popular pastime. The coastline is stunning. There’s plenty of water sports/activity going on. So, it wasn’t surprising that it was packed with boats of all types, shapes and sizes.
It also wasn’t surprising that boats that hadn’t been used or maintained in a while, should be bobbing about trailing patches of oily goop.
Normally, it wouldn’t have been an issue. We’d have just watched and waved at them from the shore, or when splashing about in the water.
However, our new hobby of stand up paddleboarding had enabled us to get out amongst them.
And my inability to stand up paddleboard had helped me fall in amongst the oil.
If you look really closely at the photo we took above, you might just make out some more unsuspecting paddleboarders about to risk doing the same thing.
What a Complete Stain in the Ass
Our oil-stained wetsuit
So, back to the oil and how to get it out of my wetsuit. Here were my initial thoughts.
- It needs cleaning. I didn’t want some sticky rainbow coloured sludge on my butt every time I went stand up paddleboarding. Not only does it smell (not my butt – the oil), it’ll get on other stuff.
- It needs cleaning PROPERLY. Diesel oil is not particularly healthy or environmentally friendly. I didn’t want it near my skin, clothes, kids, car or anywhere else for that matter.
- It needs cleaning QUICKLY. This was an educated guess. If left, I suspected it might permanently damage my new wetsuit. As i’m not made of money, getting the oil out quickly was essential.
If you’ve ever had to clean oil off a wetsuit for the first time, then you probably went through the same thought process I did.
And, as I said earlier, you quickly find out that there are things you should do and things you definitely shouldn’t.
Unfortunately, the very first thing you shouldn’t do was the very first thing I did.
I tried to wash the oil off my wetsuit with clean water.
Lovely, fresh running water. It cleans everything, right? No.
Oil laughs in its face and mine.
If you think about it, trying to wash an oil stain off a wetsuit with water (however fresh and clean that water is) is actually a bit daft.
Well, because you’ve just come out of the largest washing machine around (the ocean), and that didn’t work.
In fact, the oil was floating around on the surface. It’s how it got on your wetsuit in the first place. So why would a quick rinse under the tap do the trick?
For the sake of objectivity and honesty, I hold my hands up and say I did try it first.
I ran my oily wetsuit under clean water using a free beach tap you use to get sand off your feet. Result?
It just made the oil patch larger.
Why did this happen? Because all I was basically doing was pushing and spreading the oil and water around.
Which is futile, annoying and entirely thanks to oil and water’s incompatible, yet fascinating, chemistry.
What do you mean I’m “Immiscible”?
Oil and water (and now wetsuits) famously do not mix!
Because oil and water are what’s called “Immiscible” liquids.
Their particular individual chemistry means that they can’t be mixed to form a homogenous solution.
They can be shaken/agitated together but, eventually, they’ll separate.
When two liquids can be fully mixed together they are called miscible liquids. They are said to have miscibility.
Liquids that do not mix but form layers instead are called immiscible liquids.
Some of the most “miscible” liquids also happen to be some of my favourites.
Water and alcohol, for example, mix super easily to make beer, wine and spirits.
Oil and water, however, is a famous example of immiscible liquids.
We’ve all seen the rainbow sheen of oil on puddles by the roadside or on garage forecourts or in a harbour. You expect to see them there.
Where you don’t expect to see them is on the pants of your brand new wetsuit.
As a result, oil and water are now my least favourite immiscible liquids.
Push off Hydrocarbons and Hexanes
Quick chemistry lesson.
Water is a polar molecule. It’s structured in a way that it’s positively charged at one end and negatively charged at the other.
The positive end of one water molecule is attracted to the negative end of another.
Put simply, water molecules stick together.
Oil molecules, on the other hand, are non-polar.
They don’t have positive and negatively charged ends. Their charge is evenly balanced. So, they find other oil molecules attractive and they REALLY STICK TOGETHER.
In water, a wetsuit is your friend. Not only does it help insulate you from the cold but, amongst other things, it protects you from cuts and scrapes, sunburn and jellyfish stings.
And it’s because of how and what it’s made of that makes a wetsuit particularly niggly to clean.
And it’s because of what oil is made of that makes it tricky to clean off. Especially with water.
Oil and water just push each other away.
So, now we’ve found out the hard way why trying to clean an oil stain with fresh running water didn’t help, what next?
Google, what else can I clean my wetsuit with?
Answer: Quite a bit actually.
There are many wetsuit cleaning products out there. There’s even such a thing as wetsuit shampoo.
You use it to make your wetsuit smell lovely and fresh and clean and to kill the bacteria that inevitably accumulates after frequent use and lax cleaning.
If I’d have originally googled “how to clean a smelly wetsuit”, I’d have been quids in.
Unfortunately, I didn’t. And I couldn’t find any online product that claimed to get rid of diesel oil.
For general cleaning of a wetsuit, wetsuit shampoos might be something to try further down the line.
Aside: Some I might try just to see if they work. There’s one made by Ripcurl, aimed at deodorizing wetsuits that may have come into contact with frequent urination. As 100% of wetsuit owners pee in their wetsuits at one time or another (it’s true, they’ve done studies), it’s a must-try. Besides, it’s creatively named “Piss Off”. Hilarious. Worth buying as a gift for someone you don’t like. Check the price on Amazon HERE.
In general, though, Googling “How to get oil out of a wetsuit” oddly wasn’t much help.
There are plenty of tips on cleaning your wetsuit of body oils, yet nothing obvious or specific about getting rid of what looks like diesel oil.
In fact, Google seemed more interested in scaremongering.
I paddled through oceans of info on how NOT to clean your wetsuit. It lectured me about…
- The dangers of using solvent, alcohol and bleach on neoprene.
- How easy it is to destroy a wetsuit in a washing machine.
- How you can tear a wetsuit apart simply by brushing it.
- How essential it is, for its longevity and for your social life, to clean your wetsuit properly after each use. Pee, poo (yes, really), sweat, salt, suntan lotion, body oils are a potent mix when left to fester, apparently. Who knew?
- How to vaporize your dirty wetsuit completely by leaving it in a container in the hot trunk/boot of a car for a week.
All of it useful to know. None of it useful to me. So, it was time for some lateral thinking.
What about getting oil stains out of other materials?
Surely some general oil cleaning tips might work?
I have to tell you now, there are countless websites offering solutions for oil and tar removal on clothes, carpets, wood and other materials. I probably visited them all. In fact, if I ever get oil on a cardigan I’m now a world authority.
Neoprene, however, is a different matter and material entirely.
According to everything I read, it’s easily stretched, easily creased, easily torn. It’s also easily damaged by numerous chemicals. And, ironically, it’s badly affected by the very things it spends a lot of time coming into contact with; salt, sun and sand.
Put simply, out of the water, wetsuits are wimps. In fact, it’s a miracle they don’t fall apart completely when you take them off.
Just to prove my point, here’s my own wetsuit label.
Quite a comprehensive list of warnings, eh?
All that’s missing is DO NOT WEAR!
Your wetsuit label will probably say something similar. And what all that warning info is loudly telling you is that, when it comes to cleaning oil or anything off your precious wetsuit, paddle carefully.
So, what else did I find? What other things were recommended for getting oil out of material?
- Baking soda – to soak up the oil
- Vinegar and lemon juice – to disinfect and deodorise
- Nail varnish remover – seriously?
- A raw lamb chop – I kid you not. Rub the stain with the fat of a raw lamb chop and then use detergent. This actually might have some scientific foundation, though. Animal fat from sheep was used to make sodium tallowate soap bars which help dissolve and clean oils from your body. However, as a shark was recently spotted in Brixham harbour, I think we’ll give that a miss.
“This tip comes from a mechanic who does his own laundry. Put oily, greasy work clothes in a tub or bucket, add 2 to 4 liters of Coca-Cola®, fill with water until clothes are covered, let soak overnight. Wash the next morning with regular laundry soap.” [source:https://www.dickies.com/get-grease-out-of-your-workear.html ]
Using cola is actually quite a common tip for cleaning lots of things.
In the case of using it to clean diesel oil, there’s even a YouTube video showing you how to do it. Tbh, I’d much rather drink it (cola that is).
There is no end of well-meaning, home-made DIY advice for getting oil stains out of most things. On an old wetsuit that’s about to be replaced, I might have tried some of them.
On my brand new wettie, not a chance.
In the end, though, perseverance and Google finally paid off. I found it – a safe and simple solution for how to get oil out of a wetsuit.
A method used by commercial oil rig divers and also one used where the gentle cleaning of oil-stained/damaged delicate, waterproof equipment can literally mean the difference between life and death.
International Bird Rescue
Nope. Not a spin-off of Thunderbirds.
The organisations that do the desperately sad, but vital work, of rescuing and rehabilitating oil-covered birds, follow a detailed and carefully managed oil cleaning process.
They have to. Bird feathers are a wonder of nature. They’re a finely tuned mechanism.
To a bird, especially ones that spend their time in and around water, feathers are literally the equivalent of a wetsuit, providing vital waterproofing and thermal insulation.
Birds know this instinctively. So much so, that an oil-covered bird is effectively crippled and will preen itself to death trying to clean and realign its feathers.
Which makes cleaning oil-covered feathers supremely important.
So, what do the experts clean an oil-covered bird with? The answer may surprise you.
Once stable, oiled birds go through a series of tub washes with a low concentration of Dawn dishwashing liquid in clean water. Research was conducted on most of the commonly available cleaning agents and Dawn was the one that had the ability to remove most oils, was effective at low concentrations, non-irritating to the skin and eyes, rinsed quickly from feathers, and was easily accessible.
Text above taken from bird-rescue.org
That’s that then. Washing up liquid.
If it’s good enough for a bird’s wing, it’s good enough for my wettie.
From then on there was no stopping me, or the dishwashing liquid.
I found this on a website listing interesting facts about commercial divers (yes, there are some).
Dawn dishwashing liquid is a must-have on diving expeditions. It can get diving suits and skin free of oil, and can even help divers cope with parasitic pests.
Wow, I thought. Is there anything this stuff can’t do? The only problem was that, not being an expert on washing up liquids, I’d never even heard of DAWN.
But I researched and, in the end, it appears it’s a US brand name. And, fortunately, it turns out we have something just like it in the UK. Good old Fairy Liquid.
The story though doesn’t end there. Here’s what else I discovered.
Is there a quicker and easier way to get oil stains out of a wetsuit?
Yes, of course.
There are many people who, when it comes to cleaning their manky wetsuits, head straight for the quickest and easiest solution of all – the washing machine.
Can you clean a wetsuit in a washing machine?
Ultimately, the integrity of the neoprene and the wetsuit seams rely on as little battering about as possible. If you’re not too concerned about that, a little mild detergent on a gentle spin, such as that used for items like wool, could save all the hassle of a manual bath/tub wash.
However, if you’re thinking of using a washing machine to clean a wetsuit, make sure you choose the slowest spin using the mildest detergent on the lowest temperature.
To be honest, most wetsuit hire companies probably use washing machines or something similar.
A wetsuit hire business relies on getting its wetsuits cleaned as quickly and hygienically as possible – regardless of whether it lessens the wetsuit’s life and performance in the process. And, to be blunt, they can afford to replace them.
It’s unlikely, however, that they’re cleaning them to get rid of diesel oil.
If I used my wetsuit frequently, didn’t mind shortening its life span and could afford to replace it sooner, then I might go for it and use a washing machine too.
However, one thing is clear…
Under no circumstances should you dry your wetsuit in a tumble dryer.
Can I dry my wetsuit in a tumble dryer?
Common sense, and the whole wetsuit wearing community, is pretty much in agreement. No! You should never use a tumble dryer to dry your wetsuit.
Hang it inside out to dry on a suitable hanger, instead.
If you’ve just washed your wetsuit in the bathtub, simply hanging it up to dry in the shower cubicle is an obvious and ideal solution. Otherwise find a suitable, airy spot for it to drip dry.
It’s also not a good idea to dry your wetsuit outside in direct sunlight.
Ironically, UV light is a wetsuit’s mortal enemy and your wetsuit can age faster than a dad joke at your teenager’s birthday party if you leave it to dry in the sun all day.
Find a well ventilated, shaded spot and hang your wetsuit there instead.
Aside: Because the proper hanging of a wetsuit is so important, there are even special wetsuit hangers you can buy. We found one that’s really cool. It’s more expensive than basic hangers, but you can stick it to a car, camper van or shower and keep those drip falls away from your carpets and upholstery. You could even leave it up permanently in your shower and use it as a towel rail. Check the current price on Amazon here.
Wetsuit after cleaning
A good wetsuit is often one of the more expensive items in your paddleboarding kit.
When it comes to spending time out on the water, it’s certainly one of the most crucial. So, looking after it properly should always be a priority.
I was unfortunate (or fortunate) enough to learn this early on.
I appreciate there are plenty of chilled, experienced wetsuit owners out there who are probably laughing at this wetsuit cleaning guide right now.
Ask me again in a couple of years time and I may be one of them.
At the moment, though, and as a complete novice who’s a little paranoid when it comes to doing things right the first time, this was the simplest and safest way I could find to get oil out of my wetsuit and keep it looking nearly new at the same time.
Not only that, it appears it’s a cheap and effective way of cleaning a wetsuit even if it isn’t covered in crude oil.
Body oils are just as immiscible as crude oil, so this method should work for the general day-to-day cleaning of your smelly wetsuit too.
To conclude. If you’re not concerned about the cost, or not worried about potentially shortening its life and functionality, there are quicker ways to clean an oily wetsuit.
However, if you’re not ready for that yet, the cleaning method we described worked nicely for us. Hope you found it useful.
More importantly, hope you never have to use it.
Cheers. And safe paddleboarding!