Rash Guard vs. Compression Shirt vs. Wetsuit – What to use when?

The technology that makes up your diving equipment is truly outstanding.

Think about it, just a few decades ago, divers had no idea that the sport could get so advanced, and it’s been amazing to watch the developments unfold to make diving simpler and safer. From your facemask to your rebreather, right down to fin design, every piece of gear that you don when you’re getting ready to step off the gunwale is perfectly designed.

One thing that we don’t often recognize, however, is how far the clothing itself has come. You might have found yourself strolling into a diving store with the simple intention of buying a new set of diving clothes only to be thwarted by the many different options available. Do you go for a rash guard or a compression shirt? Long sleeve or short? And, when is it necessary to get a wetsuit? What should you wear under your wetsuit? Is there a color that is best? A thickness?

There are many questions to answer, so here’s a quick guide to getting the best, most practical attire for your diving wardrobe:

The Rash Guard

This is go-to shirt for not only divers, but also snorkelers, surfers, swimmers, and even land-based athletes like baseball and soccer players. And for good reason: these thin-layered base shirts protect you from sunburn, cuts, stings, and, of course, rashes. They are thick enough to keep you warm in water that isn’t quite cold enough for a wetsuit and thin enough to wear under one in colder water.

O'Neill Rash Guard

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Because they’re so popular, these shirts are available everywhere, relatively cheap, and in a variety of styles. Short- or long-sleeved. Thin or thick. Bright pink or midnight blue. You’ll be able to find what you’re looking for.

Compression Shirt

At first glance, this shirt will look similar to the rash guard. And, like the rash guard, it can be seen donned by runners, climbers, and other above-water athletes. But, there is a key difference: the compression shirt is tailored to not only sit closer to the body, but actually mold to it. A compression shirt is elastic in some areas and tight in others, allowing for optimal blood flow for enhanced performance. According to the manufacturers, this style prevents injury and reduces after-dive soreness.

Sharkskin Compression Shirt

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Of course, this style isn’t for everyone. Some argue that the compression technology doesn’t really work, or feels uncomfortable. There is research both supporting and debunking compression shirts, so the decision really comes down to you. If it feels good, then give it a try. If not, stick to the rash guard.


All said and done, the wetsuit is often the most important part of a diver’s attire. In cold water, it’s absolutely necessary. And even in warmer water, it can be an advantage. Wetsuits can cover the entire body, or stop at the knee and elbow, and the material and thickness can vary widely. That’s a lot to consider, but here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Warm water will usually call for a thickness of 2mm to 3mm; anything thicker will be perfect for colder climates.
  • How a wetsuit is sewn is important. A glued stitch won’t last as long as something like a blind stitch, which is a more intricate construction, will endure longer (and will be more expensive).
  • Your wetsuit should be snug, but not suffocating. Any gaps around underarms, the crotch, and the small of your back will drag you down, so make sure that your wetsuit feels like a second skin all over.
Phantom Aquatics Men's Voda Premium Stretch Full Wetsuit

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When should you wear what?

That’s going to depend a lot on your personal preferences as well as the environment you’ll be diving in. For instance, consider the temperature. In frigid waters, you’re going to need a wetsuit, and probably some kind of undershirt. If you’re in the tropics, on the other hand, you’ll probably choose something light-weight, like a compression shirt or rash guard. Also think about what obstacles you might face in the water. If you’re worried about abrasions or stings, you may want to cover your entire arms with a rash guard, even in warm water. Finally, how much sun exposure do you anticipate?

These are all questions that will help you determine what gear is best for your dive. Of course, the best advice will come from experts in the area, so make sure to get as many opinions as you can.

Ultimately, you have a lot of decisions to make. When you start searching for diving attire, you’ll be figuring out style, function, durability, and environment. These tips are just the start to you finding the perfect diving wear!

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