Cleaning My Used Wetsuit to Get That Stink Out

Wetsuits, by their very nature, are nearly a perfect creation for growing stinky bacteria. As your mom and biology teacher always told you, bacteria love damp, dark, warm environments. It takes quite a bit of maintenance to habitually rinse and hang your wetsuit to dry, leading most regular surfers to have wetsuits that smell only somewhat bad at best.

As recently written up here on EPF, I am new to surfing, and the new owner of a previously-owned O’Neill, warm and snug with wonderful flexibility. The tradeoff for the good price was a slight layer of stank on it.

Curious if the funk was permanent, I did a bit of research online and set out to do a highly unscientific research project on killing and cleaning the mildew and bacteria from a used wetsuit. These attempts were administered over the course of one week, surfing every day in between. Here is the process and my findings:

Wetsuit sink cleaningAttempt 1 – Seventh Generation Dish Soap – I started with this because it’s all natural, no harsh chemicals or bleaches, and biodegradable. I filled my kitchen sink with lukewarm water and a few capfuls and let it soak about 30 minutes on the outside and 30 minutes inside out. No scrubbing or agitating. At the end I noticed the sink water was a murky brown. Rinsed off the suit in the shower, hung to dry. When putting the suit on for a morning session the next day, it wasn’t as stank as before but still had some smell on it, most noticeably in the arms.

Attempt 2 – Joy Antibacterial Dish Liquid – After some research, I went a little stronger on the soap, thinking that the antibacterial component would help eliminate more odor. I got nervous that the neoprene would be damaged, so I didn’t soak it as long. About 30 or 45 minutes total.

Outcome: The water was much cleaner than the day before. The suit smell was definitely improved, but still some residual smell.

I did mention that this was a highly unscientific process, right?

White VinegarAttempt 3 – White vinegar and Listerine – EPF conspirator Aaron mentioned that he keeps his booties from reeking by giving them a weekly bath of white vinegar and water (about half and half). The sniff test of his tw0-year-old boots proved that this is effective. They hardly smelled of vinegar, and not of bacterial mildew whatsoever.

I had also been reading that a few caps of Listerine is a good way to help kill bacteria and give a nice smell, so I made a mix of white vinegar and Listerine in my sink with lukewarm water and soaked the wetsuit, again 30 minutes outside and 30 minutes inside.

Outcome: Cleanish water with a slight blue tint left in the sink. Next day, wetsuit had a pleasant Listerine smell to it. The one area that still had residual stinkiness was the cuffs of the sleeves and legs – exactly where the water collects when hanging to dry. This part stays damp the longest. I noticed that the smell would reactivate somewhat once it got wet in the ocean and started drying off.

Wool Wash and BrushAttempt 4 – Generic Woolite and a soft brush – Soaking can only get so much crud out of a wetsuit, and I read that a very soft brush is what to use on the delicate neoprene. I also read online to use the fake Woolite soap from the Dollar Tree  chain. I found one nearby, and found a shower brush in my bathroom with very soft bristles, and gave the suit a good soaking before going over it with the brush to remove any nastiness that might be embedded into the fabric.

Wetsuit dirty waterOutcome: The water turned dark brown, and the sink filled with sand. After I brushed it down inside and out, I rinsed it in the shower and toweled the inside to help pull out any excess moisture, to let it dry better. And so far, it seems to be working. The suit is passing the sniff test nicely.

Over time, I suspect the lesson I’ll learn is to live with the damp smell of wetsuits and towels forgotten in the trunk of my car. But for now, I feel a little bit better knowing that most of that smell will be from me and not the previous owner.

Remember these steadfast rules:

  • Don’t bleach your wetsuit
  • Don’t put it in the washing machine
  • Don’t hang it in the sun

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