Yes, neoprene is vegan. This lightweight, polymer foam has many uses, including in waders, wetsuits, and shoes, as well as in electrical insulation and fan belts for cars. Because production of neoprene does not involve animal derivatives and no animal cruelty is involved in the manufacturing process, it is considered to be vegan-friendly, although the process is not sustainable.
What Is Neoprene?
Neoprene is a strong, flexible, alternative to natural rubber. Developed by scientists at DuPont in 1930, when demand for rubber was extremely high, Neoprene was heralded as a cheaper, synthetic alternative.
As with other polymers, the structural composition of neoprene consists of large molecules set in a repeating pattern. It is highly flexible, an excellent insulator, and is resistant to burning, making it a versatile and popular material across many industries.
The material is also known as polychloroprene; Neoprene is a trade name DuPont gave it.
How Is Neoprene Made?
Neoprene is produced by the polymerization of chloroprene, a colorless and volatile liquid that is itself the product of a complex multi-step chemical reaction. The polymerization process produces ‘chips’ of polychloroprene which are then melted and combined with foaming agents and pigments, then baked to make it expand.
This polymerization requires a ‘binding agent’ that can be produced in two ways. Petroleum-based neoprene uses a petroleum derivative, butadiene, while limestone-based neoprene uses a limestone-derivative. The two types have similar (but not identical) properties and impact the environment in different ways.
The finished material is laminated to fabric, often nylon, and then is ready to use.
Is Neoprene Sustainable?
All neoprene-based products rely on either the petroleum industry or limestone mining, neither of which can claim to be sustainable. In addition, the material is notoriously difficult to form into the desired shape and is resistant to many types of adhesive.
As a result, stronger adhesives are required, which are usually high in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to environmental pollution and a range of health issues.
In spite of its very high burning point, neoprene releases hydrogen chloride when it does burn. If this then comes into contact with water, it forms hydrochloric acid. Both of these chemicals are extremely hazardous.
Verdict: Should Vegans Buy Neoprene?
Vegans can use neoprene, although some opt not to.
There is no evidence to support the use of animals or animal by-products in the making of neoprene, and so we can confidently say that it is safe for vegans to use from that perspective. Additionally, due to its superior qualities and resistance to degradation, neoprene offers a long-lasting product that eliminates the need for materials that contribute to the suffering and death of countless numbers of animals.
However, when it comes to sustainability and ethics, it becomes more problematic. Neoprene is strongly connected with the petrochemical industry, and the version produced using limestone is not much better. It is also important to bear in mind that some people have an allergic reaction to neoprene, due to the chemical dialkyl thioureas, which sometimes stays in the finished product in tiny amounts, causing skin irritations.
Overall, though, it is safe to wear and offers a useful vegan alternative.