On a hot summer day, there’s nothing quite like going to the beach to bask in the sunshine while enjoying the cool, refreshing waves. So you rummage through your swimming bag for your old swimwear only to find, gasp, it doesn’t fit you anymore! Or even worse: there’s black dots all over it.
You’ve got a few options here: try to wash it and wear it anyways, buy a new bathing suit altogether, or use workout clothes to go swimming. Many people wonder about that last option: can you actually wear activewear as swimwear? After all, they might even be made of similar materials, and if they are designed to soak up sweat then why can’t they soak up salt water or chlorinated water?
The answer is yes, you can wear your workout clothes for swimming. To be fair, it’s not the worst idea in the world, but is it a good idea in general? Not really, because your workout clothes are not designed to be exposed to chlorine or saltwater, which could degrade the materials. Furthermore, your clothes can potentially get stretched out when wet and may have a lingering chlorine smell on it, which might ruin them for you.
In this article, we will compare what it’s like to wear the appropriate swimwear vs a comparable piece of activewear and see why it’s generally not a good idea to substitute one for the other, even if you can technically get away with it.
Similar, but different
At first glance, a lot of activewear looks like they could be swimwear and vice versa. This similarity in appearance has no doubt confused people, or at least made people wonder what if they could get away with using one type of clothing for both activities. That way, they could effectively cut their costs in half. It seems smart at first glance.
After all, what exactly is the difference between a rash guard and something like a Dri Fit T-shirt anyways? Why couldn’t you just use your favorite pair of running shorts and swim trunks? The devil is in the details.
Makers of sportswear and swimwear understand that their reputation is established by making clothes that excel for the specific activity they are designed for. Granted, if a company is large enough they can start to wear many hats, however you’ll notice that every major clothing company typically excels in their own area.
Thus, your workout clothes will have specific features for land-based activities that would not benefit underwater, or may even get ruined by exposure to saltwater or chlorinated water. Each sport-specific clothing from yoga pants to hoodies, sweatshirts, T-shirts, will have their own features. The same could be said of swimwear, except their features actually are designed to benefit you underwater.
Swimwear specific features not found in activewear
Want some specific examples of these so-called features? Here are some of the major ones:
- Water-repellency. Swimwear is designed to not soak up as much water and to dry faster compared to regular clothing. They are made with fabrics that shed water rather than retain it. This is crucial for comfort once you are out of the water so that you aren’t miserably drenched all day. This is not the same as the moist-wicking properties that most workout clothes have.
- UV protection. The materials used in swimwear can provide superior UV protection, protecting you from both UVA and UVB rays which cause rapid aging and skin cancer respectively. Swimwear manufacturers know you’ll be spending plenty of time in the sun and they want to help you reduce the amount of sunscreen you need. Just because workout clothes can cover your skin doesn’t mean that they offer any UV protection.
- Anti-microbial properties. Another benefit of drying quickly is that it reduces bacterial growth. Wet or even damp clothes are a breeding ground for bacteria which can lead to mold or mildew growth. Sportswear has some of these features, but it doesn’t compare to what swimwear offers.
- The little details. Things that you don’t realize how much of a benefit they provide until they’re gone, such as side pockets that drain water in swim trunks, flat-lock seams in rash guards, swimwear tops that don’t float up, and so on.
In this section, we’ll compare pieces of swimwear with their workout clothing equivalent.
Swim shorts vs. workout shorts
A solid pair of bike shorts looks like something you could wear as an alternative to swim shorts. Heck, if you look at the label, it might even say that they are made of similar materials, so you’d be excused if you thought it would work just as well, but that’s about where the similarities end.
The first difference you’ll notice is that swim trunks are more porous (they let more liquids through) than any workout clothes. As mentioned, this is a necessity because swimwear should not absorb much water and must be able to dry quickly.
In a similar vein, air must be able to pass through as well which helps dry the swim shorts faster, and also prevents both water and air from getting trapped and ballooning out. Workout shorts do not have this feature, and will cause you to remain constantly damp out of the water.
Swimsuit manufacturers also understand that clothing can become semi transparent when wet. Furthermore, clothes will cling tightly to skin and can potentially reveal one’s private parts unintentionally. To prevent this, swimwear will have extra panels of fabric in strategic locations, particularly in the groin area.
There will also be a mesh lining under the swim trunks that helps keep your package tucked in place. This mesh lining also keeps the swim trunks from rubbing against the inside of your thighs which drastically reduces the likelihood of chafing.
Lastly, swim shorts are designed to be worn in chlorinated pools which contain harsh chemicals, and outside where it is exposed to the sun’s harsh UV rays and high salt concentrations in saltwater. Knowing this, swimwear manufacturers have designed their swimwear to have excellent colorfastness so that they do not lose their vibrancy over the course of the summer.
Rash guards vs. workout shirts
For protection from the sun’s harsh UV rays and to prevent wetsuit chafing and surfboard chafing, many people wear rash guards. In fact, even outside of surfing, more and more people are wearing rash guards when they’re hanging out at the beach or by the poolside because its UV protection and comfort is just too good to give up.
You might be wondering if a workout shirt, such as a Dri-FIT shirt, could do the same thing as a rash guard. It’s a good question considering how similar they appear to be, and who doesn’t want to use something they may already own instead of having to buy another set of clothes? However, once again, there are some major differences that make rash guards the better option for water sports.
The first difference is in the durability of a rash guard compared to a workout shirt. At a glance, you wouldn’t be able to tell, but it will be immediately obvious once you’ve had a chance to wear a rash guard.
The fabric used to make a rash guard is specifically designed to hold up to abrasive surfaces like a surfboard, as rash guards are designed with surfers in mind. Subject a workout shirt to the same level of wear and tear, and it would not last even half as long (nor would it offer sufficient protection the whole time).
Comfort is another major concern because surfers expect to be able to freely move their arms in order to paddle. Even though the rash guard fits snug, surfers do not want to be constrained in any way so the fabric must be simultaneously durable yet flexible. Workout shirts may not offer the same level of freedom as rash guards do.
Another detail that affords a lot of comfort is that rash guards are stitched with flat-lock seams. This stitching style feels smooth to the touch so that the rash guard does not itself become a source of irritation when trying to protect you from chafing.
Finally, as we mentioned, there is also the benefit of UV protection. Normal clothes do not necessarily offer much UV protection even if you are completely covered up. You specifically need to wear clothes with a UPF rating, and any decent quality swimwear is designed to totally block UV rays where it covers your skin, meaning you don’t need to apply sunscreen under those areas.
What you should NOT wear into the water
You could potentially make an argument for wearing workout clothes in the water. However, there are some clothes that you absolutely should NOT wear into the water. They will drag, weigh you down, not dry quickly, feel uncomfortable, and possibly be a safety hazard.
If part of your swimming outfit contains any of the following, it is NOT a good idea to wear them.
Clothes made of wool or cotton, even if they are a blend. Wool and cotton are notoriously absorbent, which is the opposite of what swimwear should be. They will become soggy, heavy, restrictive to the point of being a safety concern, and will generally weigh you down. They can also clog your pool filters if the material makes its way there. T-shirts and sweaters are often made of wool or cotton, so avoid wearing those when swimming.
Jeans or denim. Similarly, jean materials like denim also soak up water and become unreasonably heavy and restrictive. They are not moisture-wicking either, so you would stay uncomfortably wet for a long time. So just because you’re wearing denim shorts does NOT make it okay to swim in them. As a rule of thumb, any clothes that become heavy when wet are not suitable as swimwear.
Wearing clothes made of any of these materials is a recipe for disaster. You would be better off just wearing Speedos and nothing else because these clothes would literally hold you back in the water.
There’s almost no reason why you would ever wear your regular clothes to the pool or ocean. Plus, just because they can cover up your skin does NOT mean they provide UV protection. In fact, even on a cloudy day, a substantial portion of UV rays is still making its way through the clouds.
Thus, if you are spending a lot of time on the beach in regular clothes, you had better be lathering every inch of your body with sunscreen because the UV rays are penetrating through your T-shirt and reaching your skin.
Wear the appropriate clothing
The answer to almost any question that starts with “Can I do X…” is “yes, but…”. It’s very crucial to add that “but” at the end because you can do almost anything you want, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
So can activewear be used for swimming? Yes, but you are missing out on a lot of swimwear exclusive features that could greatly improve your swimming experience such as UV protection, colorfastness, chafing protection, comfort, and fast-drying capabilities.
Furthermore, if you are wearing your workout clothes to go swimming, there is most likely a financial concern that you cannot afford a separate set of swimwear. If you are budget-minded, then wearing activewear for swimming is not a sound financial decision either because they are not designed to be exposed to saltwater, chlorine, or chafing.
You would essentially be putting your activewear through extreme wear and tear, causing them to have a significantly reduced lifespan. In addition to not providing you features that could benefit you while swimming, you are also wearing them down faster so you will need to spend money to replace them more often. If you’re going to have to spend the money anyways, might as well just use it to buy a set of swimwear that is actually designed for use in the water.
High quality swimwear can last a long time if you take good care of it. They are specifically designed to hold up in water, and have features that will make you the most comfortable. They are worth the money if you plan on spending your summer at the beach. If you want to maximize your enjoyment and finances, get yourself some proper swimwear and don’t substitute workout clothes for it.