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Surf Smart: Your Skin's Ultimate Playbook for the Perfect Wave

Surf Smart: Your Skin's Ultimate Playbook for the Perfect Wave

Ready to score some epic waves?

Before you paddle out, let's talk about your skin – the unsung hero of every surf adventure. And in case you think that's overstated, bear this in mind: skin damage is the #1 surfing injury according to medical reviews into surfing.

Be sure your skin doesn't get drained so you can surf with confidence!

First job: understand your skin

Think of your skin as the first line of defence against outside elements.

The skin's major role is to protect your body from environmental 'stressors', extreme weather and harsh sea conditions. These environmental stressors attack your skin on a daily basis.

If your skin becomes damaged or compromised, it might not be able to perform it's main job of protecting you. And that could mean things like bacteria or viruses getting inside your body. 

Skin damage can be anything on a spectrum from soreness, dryness, redness, cracking, spots, itchiness, wrinkles or sensitivity, all the way to skin cancer (and thousands of other things in between). Unfortunately, a tan also implies skin damage; we won't go down that rabbit hole in this post but you can read more here

Make skin protection part of your gear

Given how much time you spend outside in the water and the fact skin damage is so common among surfers, skin protection needs to be part of your gear. 

When it comes to your long-term skin health, it could become even more important than your trusty old pot of surf wax. And if that doesn't motivate you, it will definitely help you get better-looking, better-feeling skin.

Five skin protection tips for surfers 

So you can enjoy being on the water to its fullest and focus on the reasons you’re there (not the painful side-effects), here are five skin protection tips for surfers, including why we think they’re important. 

1. BE UV-AWARE

The gorilla in the room and chief of all aggressors is ultraviolet light.

UV is responsible for 80% of premature skin ageing and 90% of melanoma skin cancers. A study in Australia found that surfers had consistently higher rates of pre-skin cancer, non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers versus the general population. 

Here’s the important bit of science most people don’t realise. UVA in particular reaches your skin every single day and in equal measure throughout the year. It also accounts for 95% of the UV that reaches us on earth. So, as long as it’s light outside, UVA hits your skin – even through cloud and glass.

UVA penetrates the deeper layers of the skin meaning you can’t see the damage. It contributes to premature skin ageing and wrinkling by damaging the natural proteins under the skin’s surface. These proteins keep the skin tight and strong but, when damaged, can’t provide the same structural support.

For a long time, it was thought that UVA couldn’t cause any lasting damage other than these cosmetic changes but studies strongly suggest UVA enhances the development of skin cancers because the rays also cause DNA damage in the skin.

Given UV is ever present, the temperature outside or time of year doesn’t matter. On the water, UV hits you twice: once from the sun and again, as it bounces off the sea and back onto you. Combined, this almost doubles your UV exposure. For this reason, water can be a harsh UV environment particularly if you’re out for several hours.

So, for any time on the water – any time of year – use a good sunscreen before heading outside on all exposed skin. We recommend a minimum of SPF 30 and the European ‘UVA’ kite mark (or UVA 4-5*). Choose something that's water resistant (typically an oil or a mineral-based sunscreen). No sunscreen can stay on your skin all day and protection levels will inevitably diminish if you’re getting splashed, sweating or towelling. So try to reapply every two hours if you can and don’t forget your lips, nose, back of the neck and ears – commonly missed spots where people often burn. 

If you care about your health, this is a really important part of your gear. 

2. WAVE GOODBYE TO SURFER'S RASH

Surfer's rash or chafing occurs when there's repeated friction between skin and clothing (or equipment), leading to irritation, redness, and even blisters. 

Paddling for hours on end with a wetsuit moving around on the skin or with your chest against the board can cause serious pain and sensitivity. 

Continual rubbing of the skin's outer layer (the epidermis) causes microscopic tears and that layer of skin can wear away, leaving the layer beneath it exposed. In the words of our very own Consultant Dermatologist, Professor Christian Aldridge, “chafing or friction dermatitis is principally caused by skin rubbing against skin, clothing or other materials, leading to sore, red inflamed skin which can crack, weep and even bleed if severe." Given the skin's role in protecting your body from the outside world, exposed skin is something you need to try and avoid.

Be sure to apply a good amount of lubricant to areas you know you chafe and avoid pain, discomfort and blisters. This is one that could definitely put you on the sidelines if you don't address it pre-ride.

3. DON’T FORGET YOUR LIPS

Don’t forget to protect your lips even if they don’t normally need any special attention. Lips don’t produce sebum so can quickly become dry. They also burn more easily than other areas of skin. Keep an SPF lip balm in your wetsuit or pack for both UV protection and moisture. Reapply constantly throughout the day.

4. DRINK UP

Healthy skin contains about 30% water, which is essential for maintaining the skin’s elasticity, strength and structure. If that drops even slightly, it can lead to dehydrated skin. 

Up to half a litre of water evaporates from your skin each day, at rest, in a cool environment. This can increase to as much as 10 litres while exercising in heat.

The problem is that time spent in the water can hide the fact you're sweating. Sweating is a natural process to cool the body down, known as 'thermoregulation'. Wearing a wet suit impacts body temperature too. But know this, with all that paddling and moving (especially if you're doing it in hotter climes), you'll be losing moisture. 

Avoid heat stroke and maintain cellular moisture from the inside out by drinking up pre and post surf. 

5. POST SURF SKIN PROTECTION ROUTINE

After hours in the water, try to get into the habit of helping your skin recover. 

In simple terms, we mean cleanse and moisturise. This can take as little as 30 seconds and it will really help the skin repair itself after being thrashed about and losing moisture. 

Moisturisers can do two things depending on their ingredients: form a layer to block water leaving or try and add water to the epidermis. Use what you like and apply post wash, post surf. 

Apply straight after a bath or shower to seal in moisture while your skin is damp. Don’t forget about your hands and body – they definitely won’t say no to a daily layer of added moisture.