Yulex: the eco-friendly alternative to neoprene-based wetsuits is biodegradable and 100 percent free of petroleum | Photo: Scott Soens/Patagonia

Surfers have used wetsuits for decades, with neoprene as its core material. But the paradigm is shifting. Meet Yulex, the natural rubber that promises to revolutionize insulation and the sport.

You've probably heard about it. Yulex is the game-changer in the world of wetsuits.

At its core, it's a 100 percent plant-based, renewable, and biodegradable substance.

It's not just an alternative to traditional wetsuit materials - it's a leap forward. It is also 100 percent free of petroleum, limestone, and acetylene.

Extracted from certified deforestation-free rubber trees, Yulex doesn't just stop at wetsuits.

The versatile material is used in footwear, automotive items, bags and accessories, braces and sleeves, yoga gear, biking equipment, and triathlon suits, just to name a few.

The partner factories working with Yulex are subject to yearly internal audits.

Several surf brands, including Patagonia, Billabong, Slater Designs, VF Corporation, SRFACE, Finisterre, needessentials, Seea, MDNS, and Firewire, have already adopted Yulex in their manufacturing processes.

Yulex: a plant-based natural rubber that is as flexible, warm, and durable as neoprene for wetsuit production | Photo: Tim Davis/Patagonia

From Arizona to the World

The vision behind Yulex - the material - is spearheaded by Jeff Martin, a recognized figure in the natural rubber polymer industry and CEO and co-founder of the Yulex Corporation.

It all started in 2000 in the company's Guayule natural rubber farm in Arizona.

From there, Yulex pioneered the production of natural rubber latex in the United States.

With a legacy of innovative and culture-driven leadership, Martin's drive to increase the use of certified natural rubber is evident in Yulex's initiatives.

Today, only about 3 percent of the natural rubber worldwide is certified, but Yulex, with its commitment and partnerships, aims to amplify this figure.

As the demand surged, notably from Patagonia, Yulex pivoted to producing foam from the hevea brasiliensis rubber tree, another renewable treasure of nature.

Cultivated in Guatemala since the 1940s, hevea trees are first tapped at seven years of age.

Properly treated, they can produce rubber latex for the next 30 years.

As their yields diminish, the trees are cut and milled.

Hevea is a dense hardwood that can be built into furniture or household goods, giving each tree another life after it's felled.

New saplings are then spliced onto the stumps.

Finca Palafox, Guatemala: the farm where Yulex is extracted from hevea trees at seven years of age | Photo: Tim Davis/Patagonia

Is Yulex as warm, flexible, and durable as neoprene?

The answer is a resounding yes - and possibly even more so.

According to independent analysis, Yulex's performance, flexibility, and durability match, if not outshine, that of neoprene, also known as polychloroprene.

The unique selling proposition? Yulex wetsuits are crafted from FSC-certified natural rubber.

This sustainable alternative has ushered in a reduction in CO2 emissions by a whopping 80 percent compared to the neoprene production process.

And if Patagonia's product developer, Hub Hubbard, is to be believed, there's no discerning a Yulex wetsuit from its neoprene counterpart - unless, of course, you're told about the monumental environmental difference.

Are Yulex wetsuits better than neoprene wetsuits?

Beyond its eco-friendly attributes, Yulex is a beacon of hope for those with Type 1 latex allergies, thanks to its proprietary purification process that eradicates up to 99 percent of known impurities.

Neoprene, derived from petroleum in a process known to have carcinogenic implications, has long been the industry's staple.

But with Yulex offering superior or equal performance without the environmental costs, the scales seem to be tilting.

Ramon Navarro: the Patagonia team surfer putting a Yulex wetsuit to the test in Kawesqar, Chile | Photo: Pablo Jimenez/Patagonia

The Patagonia Yulex Wetsuit Story

Patagonia was the first surf brand to embrace the revolutionary alternative to neoprene wetsuits in 2008.

An ardent surfer, Patagonia's founder, Yvon Chouinard, felt disillusioned with the environmental ramifications of his neoprene wetsuit.

Thus began his quest for an alternative.

In 2008, demonstrating a foam that offered superior warmth, performance, flexibility, and, most crucially, sustainability, the Yulex team's proposition was irresistible.

Initially, the company turned to the guayule plant, harnessing its rubber.

Fast forward a few years, and they bid farewell to neoprene, embracing natural rubber from the nurturing arms of Hevea trees.

Yulex natural rubber, a beacon of renewal, matches neoprene's performance but with a nod to the planet's well-being.

While factories churn out neoprene, majestic trees yield natural rubber, soaking up carbon throughout their existence.

The partnership wasn't just about mutual growth. It was about a shared vision for a greener planet.

Despite the potential of an exclusive deal, Patagonia chose the path less traveled.

They wanted the entire industry to benefit from Yulex's sustainable solution, so they made the proprietary natural rubber available to the surf industry.

"Patagonia knew from the beginning there was no way to move the needle ourselves, nor would it be a worthwhile venture unless the whole industry was disrupted," noted Patagonia.

"This technology was meant to be shared. Even if it inspires other alternatives to neoprene, it makes this project worth it."

But the eco-friendly pivot hasn't just been about saving the planet. Performance enhancement was paramount for both companies.

Together, they've tweaked and optimized Yulex foams, ensuring that eco-friendliness and top-tier performance aren't mutually exclusive.

Neoprene-based wetsuits may have their days numbered.

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