Eco-Friendly, Sustainable AND Sexy! The Origins of Latex
When we first launched this site, our fabulous readers and customers – you all! – sent us lots of awesome questions about our products and latex and general. In particular, there were a couple of questions which we kept seeing over and over again: What is latex made of? Is latex different from rubber? Is it safe for humans to wear? Is it dangerous to the environment?
So don’t worry! Today, we’ve decided to publish this article which will answer all of those questions – and more! – by taking an exciting look into just how all our amazing latex outfits and accessories came to be. It’s time to take a journey through the process of how latex goes from sticky sap to sexy suit. And, as we go through this journey together, we’ll talk all about how latex is not just safe – it’s a completely natural substance, which is harvested and made into clothing in a way that is both environmentally friendly and cruelty free!
Latex vs. Rubber
Before we start with our explanation of just how latex is harvested and created, it’s important to establish a distinction between two terms which you will see used a lot in our articles: latex and rubber.
You’ve probably heard these words used a lot to describe products that seem similar or even exactly the same. What’s the difference between a “latex glove” and a “rubber” one? Are a “rubber tire” and a “latex catsuit” made from different materials, or the same one?
Don’t worry, the answer is in fact a very simple one: for the most part, the words “latex” and “rubber” refer to the same substance and can be used interchangeably. Sometimes, you will see “rubber” used more frequently, such as when talking about truck tires or garden hoses. Other times, “latex” will be used when referring to gloves, clothing or fetish accessories. However, in all of these situations, both terms are referring to the exact same material: an elastic, temperature-resistant substance which can be made into a ton of different products.
There is one crucial area in which a distinction must be made: in its liquid form, the material must always be referred to as “latex”. “Rubber” can only be used if you are describing the substance as a solid.
This is because the word “latex” was created first to refer to a type of liquid produced by certain trees, as discussed in the sections below. “Latex” comes from a Latin word meaning “liquid” or “flowing”. “Rubber” was created about a century later, in the 1800s, by European manufacturers of latex products. Initially, it only referred to latex-based pencil erasers, and came from the fact that the erasers were used to “rub” out mistakes made in pencil. Eventually, the term “rubber” grew in popularity until could be used interchangeably with latex – or, at least, almost could be!
Latex in the Natural World
Now that we’ve explained that, it’s time to move on to asking where does latex come from? If you look at a sleek, shiny black catsuit or a bright blue medical glove, you would probably think that latex was made from a mix of various chemicals. After all, given its shiny texture, extreme stretchiness and wide variety of intense colors, latex doesn’t exactly look like something which could have a natural origin, does it?
But, in fact, the truth is that it does! Latex is a completely natural substance which is produced by a rather unexpected source – trees!
Specifically, latex comes from a type of tree known by the scientific name of Hevea brasiliensis. Colloquially, this tree has come to be known as the “rubber tree,” taken from one of the names for its product. Natural latex is a thick, milky white liquid similar to sap which can be found just underneath the rubber tree’s layer of bark. It is made of a mix of water and various natural proteins and serves a very important purpose in the life of the tree. The liquid latex “sap” works to protect the tree from dangers to its health, including insects, mold, fungus, and bacterial diseases such as leaf blight.
Originally, the Hevea brasiliensis tree could only be found in the Amazon rainforest of South America. It is a tropical tree which grows quickly in warm, somewhat damp climates. As people around the world began to discover the many uses of latex, rubber tree seeds became an important trade good and were planted in various countries with appropriate growing environments. In particular, the rubber tree was introduced to Asia in the year 1876 when several seeds and saplings were given by British visitors as gifts to the rulers of Malaysia.
Today, in addition to its native South America, Hevea brasiliensis flourishes in a number of Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, and the Philippines. The trees are grown in large numbers on vast plantations, where the liquid latex is harvested and shipped all around the world to be made into a huge variety of products.
Harvesting Latex: the Trees Live in Peace
Latex is an extremely versatile product with a wide variety of uses. However, that’s not what makes it so great – well, at least, that’s not the only thing that makes it so great. Another amazing fact about latex is that its harvesting process is completely eco-friendly and sustainable, and does not kill or harm the trees in any way.
Most rubber trees require several years of growth – usually up to 5 – before they are mature enough for latex to be safely harvested. The plantation workers make sure to take good care of the trees and not harvest any latex until they have reached maturity. Once they are grown, only a certain amount of liquid latex is removed from each tree every year. The tree is left with enough latex inside of it to protect itself from bugs, insects and disease
Once a tree has matured, the liquid latex “sap” which it regularly produces is harvested by a process known as “tapping”. You may be familiar with tapping if yfou live in or have ever visited Canada, as it is also the process used to get sticky, delicious syrup from Canada’s maple trees!
In order to begin “tapping” a rubber tree, a small amount of bark is removed, which allows the liquid latex to flow out. Only a little bark needs to be removed because the latex is produced so close to the surface of the tree. A bucket or small pot is placed underneath the area where the cut was made, and the latex is allowed to slowly flow out into it. Each cut can produce latex for several hours before it stops flowing entirely, and one “tapping session” usually results in about one cup of latex being successfully harvested.
In order to make sure that the process remains sustainable and does not permanently harm the tree, each section of removed bark is used for only one “tapping session”. Once the latex flow in one area has dried out, a worker will make another cut in another area and begin the process all over again. This will allow the tree time to heal by re-growing the removed bark in the “tapped out” area.
The latex tapping process does not damage the tree in any way. A rubber tree being regularly tapped for its latex will grow tall and strong and can still live just as long of a life as one which is growing untapped in the wild. Typically, a tree will produce latex for 25-30 years – and particularly successful trees can be tapped for several tons of latex during this time span!
Even once a tree has finished producing latex, it still gets to be part of an eco-friendly, beneficial cycle! The wood of the rubber tree is very sturdy and durable, and can be made into many types of furniture or sold as firewood. The thick, healthy leaves of the tree can be allowed to decompose and become a part of the nutritious soil which will nourish the next generation of latex-producing rubber trees!
First Steps: From Farm to Factory
Once the latex has been harvested, it starts on its journey to become a sexy outfit, a functional glove, or perhaps even an arousing sleep sack or vacuum bed. The process of manufacturing goods from latex is extremely efficient and also environmentally conscious, as few to no chemicals are added – and none of those which are used produce any harmful gases or other emissions.
First, the water is removed from the liquid latex. In its natural form, latex is estimated to be about 50% water. However, if the water is left in during the manufacturing process, the resulting goods would not be as elastic or as durable as high quality latex products should be. So, the water must be removed. There are two options for doing so: either the latex is left in a heated, brightly lit environment so the water can evaporate over time or it is spun with very high velocity to remove the water.
The Most Important Step: Vulcanization
Latex in its liquid form can be used to make a few products, such as paints or adhesives. However, in order to make catsuits, sleep sacks or any of our other Laidtex products, it is necessary to turn that liquid into a flexible, elastic but strong and durable solid.
For many decades, humans were able to harvest latex but could not do much with it because they had not yet figured out how to turn it into a durable solid. Some curing options existed, but they resulted in a fragile rubber which did not last very long before breaking down. There is only one process which can safely turn latex into a long-lasting, sturdy solid form without having any harmful environmental effects or presenting any health risks to human workers. The name of that crucial process is vulcanization.
The vulcanization process was first developed by the entrepreneur Charles Goodyear in the mid-1800s. Because of the use of high temperatures, Goodyear decided to name his new discovery after Vulcan, the Roman god of crafting and the forge. He used it to make strong, long-lasting vehicle tires which quickly became extremely popular. In fact, the Goodyear tire brand is still active today! You might even have Goodyear tires on your own car – and if you don’t, you’ve probably ridden in a car with Goodyear tires at some point in your life.
Vulcanization allows the liquid latex to become a solid by introducing the chemical sulfur into the mix while exposing both substances to high temperatures. The chemical reactions which occur solidify the latex, removing the stickiness it possesses in its liquid form and replacing it with other, more beneficial qualities.
Vulcanized latex is extremely superior to that produced using any other curing process. It is elastic (or stretchy) but also resilient and does not tear, deform or break easily even when exposed to high amounts of stress and pressure.
This latex also has excellent temperature resistance, and can be used in hot or cold environments alike without degrading in quality. In fact, tests performed by scientists around the world have proved that vulcanized latex can survive in temperatures ranging from -67 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, or -55 to 82 degrees Celsius. That’s a huge range!
A Solid Success: Molding, Cutting and Gluing
From there, the manufacturing process will be different depending on what type of latex product is being made. Everything from tires to gloves to basketballs can be successfully made from latex using the wide variety of existing production strategies!
Some latex products can even be made using one of two different processes. A common example is the latex mattress, which can be formed into its distinctive thick, rectangular shape either by baking it in high heat or foaming it via exposure to various reactive chemicals and then flash-freezing the result. These two processes are referred to as Dunlop and Talalay respectively, and to this day both are widely used by various mattress makers all around the world.
But did you know that latex clothing, just like mattresses, can be made one of two different ways? That’s right! Products such as the catsuits sold here at Laidtex can be produced via either molding or gluing. Not sure what those mean? Don’t worry, we’ve provided a thorough explanation of both processes below!
As the name suggests, molded latex involves pouring heated, still somewhat liquid latex into a mold in the shape of the resulting product. The mold is usually made of metal, such as aluminum, so that it can be heated effectively. The product is baked inside the mold at very high temperatures, which causes it to solidify into its final form.
Molded latex products do not have any seams, because they are made all in one piece – or, at most, in a few large pieces for something huge like a full-body suit or a vacuum bed. As a result, they are sometimes more expensive than their glued counterparts. However, in exchange for the higher price, molded latex products are considered to be more durable and longer lasting because they have no weak stress points such as seams.
Keep in mind; however, that the lack of seams may not be exclusively a positive quality. While a molded latex suit is extremely durable, if it does break or tear, it is much more difficult to repair than one which can be re-fastened at existing seams. If your molded latex suit sustains serious damage, we recommend taking it to a professional rather than trying to fix it by yourself.
On the other hand, glued latex is produced in a manner more similar to “standard” clothing made from cotton or other fabrics. The solidified latex is pressed into thin sheets, rarely any more than a few inches thick and often much smaller. Then, these sheets are cut according to patterns. For example, if you are making a latex shirt, the front, back, collar, and two sleeves might each be cut out as their own separate piece.
The pieces are then glued together to create a final product. As part of latex manufacturer’s commitment to creating environmentally friendly, sustainable products, adhesives and glues are used which do not contain harsh or dangerous chemicals. You can safely wear a glued latex product without having to worry about any associated health or safety risks.
The areas where the latex pieces are glued together are known as seams. You should be very careful when wearing a glued latex outfit, as the seams are slightly weaker than the rest of the material. Thus, the overall product is slightly less durable and has a higher risk of breaking, tearing, or losing its shape than its molded latex counterpart. However, because of the existence of seams, you can easily repair the damage in your own home. We recommend using the adhesive rubber cement, commonly found at craft stores, to re-glue any split or damaged seams of your glued latex suit.
Stick to Natural Latex!
All of the above manufacturing processes we discussed are those used for making products out of natural latex, harvested from rubber trees in Asia or South America. However, in recent years, the global demand for latex has gotten so high that some manufacturers have begun to use synthetic latex instead.
Synthetic latex does not use the sap of the rubber tree at all and is instead made out of a wide variety of artificial chemicals. However, it is much less environmentally friendly than natural latex, and could potentially pose health or safety risks to those who wear or use its products. Here at Laidtex, we fully support the use of natural latex only for the production of clothing or any other items which come in contact with the human body. So make sure you check before you buy to see what kind of latex the product you are selecting is made from!
If you want to learn more about the vast differences between natural and synthetic latex, and the many advantages which natural possesses over its synthetic counterpart, see our in-depth article here.
A Whole Wide World of Latex
What once started out as merely a sticky, sap-like substance with the sole purpose of protecting rubber trees from bacteria and disease has become one of the most widely used manufacturing materials in the entire world. Since the early 1800s, humanity has discovered a nearly uncountable number of uses for naturally harvested latex. Laidtex’s sexy suits and arousing accessories are downright fabulous, but did you know that they’re only a very small part of the amazingly wide world of latex?
Earlier, we discussed how Charles Goodyear used his newly patented vulcanization process to create tires made from latex. Today, rubber tires are extremely common, and can be found on almost any type of vehicle. Everything from bikes to cars to airplanes to even some spaceships can make use of latex for their tires! In fact, today, 70 to 75% of the world’s latex is used in the manufacture of tires alone.
Shortly after the vulcanization process was perfected, in the 1830s, English company Mackintosh began using latex to create raincoats and rain boots which were more water resistant than anything which had ever been seen before.
At Laidtex, one of our personal favorite latex facts is that Mackintosh raincoats were both one of the first latex products ever made, and the item which first gave rise to the latex fetish! Within just a few years of their release into the market, fan clubs had already formed to bring together admirers of these both functional and attractive new coats! (See our history of the latex fetish here to learn more about the role Mackintosh raincoats played in its development.)
There’s so many more products which can be – and are! – made out of latex, and more are discovered and produced every year. If we listed all of them, we’d be here forever. Instead, we’ll leave you with just a couple of examples before we bring this deeper look into the world of latex harvesting and manufacturing to a close:
The gloves which the doctor who performed your last check-up wore. The football which was used to score the winning point in this year’s Superbowl game. The hose which you bring out when you need to water your garden or backyard. The Band-Aid which you pulled out of the closet to cover an irritating paper cut. The festive, colorful balloons decorating your most recent birthday party. Even the sneakers or running shoes which you just might be wearing right now!
What do all of these useful, important products have in common?
We bet you can guess it!
Every single one of the things we just listed either includes or is made entirely from latex! Latex is such a huge, vital and wonderful part of today’s world.
We’re pretty sure that you use or come in contact with a latex product every single day of your life! So why not add one more piece – or several more pieces! – of latex to your everyday routine. Head over to our product catalog, found here, to pick out a new suit, dress, or outfit, or perhaps some accessories. With Laidtex, you can widen your latex world today!
If you have any addition questions about how natural latex is harvested or manufactured, feel free to contact our Laidtex staffers at any time. We’d be happy to help you continue your latex education! After all, we all know just how fascinating latex can be!