Waterproof vs Water Repellent: What’s the difference?

When you put your waterproof jacket on:

 

One of the most important aspects when it comes to the functionality of most techwear pieces, is understanding the science between being water repellent or waterproof. Although the terms are mistakenly used interchangeably, they are not one in the same.

If you have ever been wearing one of your favorite articles of clothing and you happen to accidentally spill your favorite cold drink, you immediately leap into the air while screaming. All that remains where you were sitting is a dust cloud in the shape of your body. That’s because most fabric holds little to no water-resistant abilities and liquid soaks right through.

Through its construction or water resistance, most techwear allows for the wearer to be bone dry, as if your body had been wandering through the desert for days on end. Maybe a desert sounds too desolate. Techwear is still very breathable, it just keeps the wearer dry. You know what, maybe we should just bail on this analogy. Ok, ready? Go!

Image credit: ufpro.com

Water resistant, water repellent, and waterproof all hold different meanings in their capabilities. Think of these three terms in relation to how powerful they are in stopping water. Water resistant is at the bottom, water repellent is the medium level, and waterproof sits alone at the top of the spectrum for displacing water.

When an item is water resistant, that means that water can be dispelled from said item, but only to a certain degree. If you have ever owned a piece of water-resistant technology, you would know that majority of the time you cannot submerge the item in larger depths of water for long periods of time. Simply put, water resistant means the item can handle a brief interaction with water.

Water repellent operates at a much stronger level, often because of a special coating that is placed on the items in which they claim their water repellency. A ton of techwear items often contain a version of DWR, which stands for Durable Water Repellency. This coating is often sprayed onto to water resistant or waterproof clothing to add an even stronger level of protection. DWR functions as a sort of barrier that doesn’t allow water to break its surface.

How to Restore the Durable Water Repellency of Your Raingear | GORE-TEX  BrandImage credit: gore-tex.com

Instead of water breaking through, the DWR or water repellency of said item kicks in and effectively stops water from permeating by way of a beading technique. Water is turned into small beads right on the material and essentially rolls right off. DWR spray is often used on clothing, furniture, and paint. As the name states, this is how water is repelled from the material. Some popular versions of DWR used are Teflon material spray and 3M Scotchgard.

Waterproof material is that much stronger, as far as clothing is concerned. Waterproof clothing is often made up of layers of material that are incorporated together, such as GORE-TEX. GORE-TEX is a fancier name of ePTFE. Scientist Robert Gore was fiddling around with a rod of solid PTFE when he discovered if he took the material and gave it a strong and quick yank, the material stretched 1000% creating a porous layer that was essentially 70% air. 

Robert W. Gore | Science History Institute

Image credit: Sciencehistory.org

This happy accident turned into ePTFE or expanded PTFE, which was how the GORE-TEX membrane was invented and placed into layers on clothing to make said clothing waterproof. The layering is often done in a three-layer or five-layer system that includes a soft inner layer, protection layer, the GORE-TEX membrane, another protection layer, and an abrasion resistant final layer. This system allows liquid such as sweat to escape the material, while also effectively stopping soaking of the material at the same exact time from outside liquid such as rain. This, and the fabric remains extremely breathable.

GORE-TEX often comes with additional spraying of DWR, which makes it that much more resistant to any kind of moisture, and what makes techwear and other items that uses GORE-TEX to have a higher price point. The layering system coupled with the DWR treatment creates fabric that is impervious to any sort of liquid soaking through.

Image credit: gore-tex.com

Waterproof material is usually the combination of material mixed with the DWR treatment, whereas the water repellency of clothing is strictly the DWR itself. That is the difference that a lot of people often mistake when it comes to understanding water repellency to waterproof materials. Waterproof doesn’t allow for moisture to come in whereas water repellency displaces the water away in the beading process mentioned earlier.

There you have it. We have completed our best Bill Nye impression of explaining the science behind water repellent and waterproof technology, so check to see what techwear you buy has in terms of protection. We’re not saying jumping into a pool with techwear on would keep you dry but going on a rain-filled hike would barely affect you.

Now you know what to look for when shopping for your best techwear threads and understanding that DWR and waterproof clothing work together to keep the wearer dry and happy, even in the worst conditions.

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