What Does Waterproof and Breathability Mean for Clothing?

So, you are looking for a new coat, but you are not sure what breathability means? Breathability is the ability of the fabric to absorb moisture and release it through the material itself - allowing it to breath and not be suffocated by the moisture within it. This stops sweat from building up, moisture forming on the inside and smells both in and on the fabric. 

Let us explain, to put it simply:

  • Breathable clothes dispel the build up of condensation and allow any build up of moisture, including sweat, to be expelled. This keeps you feeling fresher for longer.
  • Waterproof clothing, depending on the rating, will cause water to run off the garment and not penetrate through to the inside. You’ll be dry and warm on your outdoor adventures through the country.
  • Water resistant clothing, however, will only stop a light amount of water from penetrating the clothing. This is a big difference, and one to watch out for.

That said, there’s more to it than that, which we’ll explain next.


Why are Breathable Clothes Important?

If you are an active outdoors enthusiast and you want to boost your performance, a breathable garment helps this to happen. Breathability is a crucial element in the technicalities of performance wear.

There are many reasons that breathability is important, such as preventing you from overheating. Fabrics that are designed to be warm should have a breathability factor to prevent the wearer from becoming stuffy and producing too much sweat whilst wearing.


How do Breathable Clothes Work?

Breathability also allows air to travel through the fabric, repelling odours and keeping the cloth fresh.

The breathability of fabric that has a continuous motion of absorbing and releasing moisture, such as sweat, should have a higher perspiring capacity within it.

If you were buying footwear, you should also buy shoes, boots, etc with a breathability fabric as this can prevent blisters. An excess of moisture build-up from a non-breathable boot can cause excess sweat, causing rubbing and lead to blistering.


The Layer System

Outdoor clothing can contain a breathable, microporous, membrane, which are thin layers of man-made film containing tiny pores which allow vapour to be released but are too small to allow water droplets in.

These layers are either 2 or 3 layers thick and are laminated to the face fabric:

  • The 2-layer version is normally featured in lined-garments where the lining protects the membrane.
  • The 3-layer version is where the membrane is sandwiched between the outer and inner layers of fabric.

Sometimes mesh is incorporated into clothing as an added breathability aid. Also pit-zips can be found under the armpits of some garments which can be fully opened to allow your armpits to cool if you are overheating but unable to remove your clothing due to outside elements.

In other words, if your jacket is breathable but you are wearing layers beneath that are non-breathable then your system will fail and they will all become non-breathable. This means that sweat cannot make it to the breathable layer and will stay inside your clothing.

At the moment there is no standardised way of testing breathability, but most use the MVP guide to rate their clothing.


MVP ratings

MVP stands for Moisture Vapour Transmission and is dependant on the formation of a temperature or pressure gradient between the interior and exterior of the breathable garment. Breathable fabric works by equalling the heat and pressure inside and outside the garment, constantly adjusting one way or the other to keep them in balance.

MVP measures the amount of water vapour that can pass through a square meter of fabric in a 24-hour period:

  • 8000g will give you a good level of breathability for general outdoor use
  • 20000g gives you a good level of breathability for more active use
  • 30000g gives you the best level of breathability.

When you sweat the moisture inside the clothing must pass through the fabric and evaporate on the surface, if however, the passage for this to happen is blocked the build up of moisture has nowhere to go and thus builds up on the inside of the clothing causing condensation on the inside and making the user uncomfortable.

Breathable fabrics work best when the air inside is warm and humid and the air outside is cold and dry.

Breathable clothing is best worn close fitting due to the fact the moisture vapour build up which is on its way out will come into pockets of cooler air between the middle and outer layers and so the condensation should form on the outside.


What is Waterproof Clothing?

Waterproof fabrics are resistant to water penetration and usually have a membrane or coating which acts as a barrier and causes non-saturation into the material. The reason for this is obvious; once out in the country, there’s nothing worse than finishing half of a hike or walk while you’re soaking wet!

Depending on the waterproof rating of your coat and clothing, you’ll be protected from different amounts of water as it isn’t able to seep into the fabric.


How are Clothes Made Waterproof?

There are a couple of ways clothes can be waterproofed. The most common is usually with the material and process involved in creating the garment. Waxed cotton is preferred here, as it’s breathable and protects against water.

There are also waterproofing agents, such as the Nikwax Wax Cotton Proof, which can be applied to clothing, to either add waterproofing or supplement or fill in patches as it wears off. A combination of these methods, along with some specific materials, can increase the waterproofing rating of any piece of clothing.


Waterproof Ratings

Waterproof ratings for clothing are as follows:

  • 5000mm - this is the minimum rating that an item can be to call itself waterproof and will only be waterproof in a light shower
  • 1000mm-15000mm - will withstand a downpour and heavy snow., but if you are out to long eventually the wet will penetrate through the fabric causing wetness
  • 20000mm and above - if you are planning to work or be outside in very wet weather for long periods you should look for this rating to make sure you stay waterproof all day.

When buying waterproof clothing, check to see what the waterproof ratings are and if they’ll hold up against the conditions you’ll face.


Water Resistant Clothing

If your item is water resistant it is NOT waterproof. Water resistant means the item is able to resist the penetration of water to some degree, but it can soon give in and become wet.

Water resistant clothing might be cheaper than waterproof garments, making it an attractive choice for those looking for a bargain. Without understanding the difference between the two, however, you can find yourself soaking wet when you don’t expect to be - and that puts a downer on everyone’s day.

The key lesson is to check for waterproof over water resistance and the rating that comes with it. If you’re going to a place where rain is extremely unlikely, you might get away with water resistant coats - but that heavy shower that might show up will leave you wishing you’d made a different choice.


Want to Know More About Breathability and Waterproof Clothing?

Finding the right clothing that offers good amounts of breathability and waterproofing isn’t easy, and depending on where you go and what season it is will change what you need. We can’t control the weather, but we can help you find a great selection of high-quality clothing to help you take on any outdoor adventure you have in mind.

If you still have questions about clothing breathability and waterproofing, we’re happy to help you however we can. Whether it’s a specific question about any of our products or how to reapply waterproofing, get in touch with a member of our friendly team.

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