Why Don’t More Surfers Wear Goggles?

do surfers wear goggles

The ocean is salty and full of bacteria that can irritate your eyes. Plus, people pee and poop in it. Is that not reason enough to wear goggles all the time whenever you’re in the ocean? Evidently for surfers, it is not based on how few surfers wear goggles.

In fact, other than either a wetsuit or rashie and some sunscreen/surf zinc, you’ll find that surfers use almost no protective equipment at all; no helmets, booties, gloves, and no goggles either. Perhaps it should be the case that more surfers wear goggles to protect their eyes.

In this article, we will discuss the various reasons why most surfers don’t wear goggles. We will also cover some situations where it may be very beneficial to wear goggles while surfing. Additionally, we will also discuss the general sentiment that surfers have regarding wearing goggles and if they have any merit or not.

Can you surf with goggles?

First off, we have to stress that we are not trying to push you in one direction or another. We have no horses in this race. We don’t stand to gain or lose anything (and won’t put any affiliate links in this article) so we can be as neutral as possible.

The answer, of course, is yes, you can surf with goggles. There’s no rule against it, so you are free to use or not use them to your heart’s content. However, just because something is allowed doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea, even if it seems so at first glance.

Yes, goggles will protect your eyes from saltwater and the bacteria in it. However, goggles tend to cause more problems than they solve while surfing.

For instance, goggles can fog up as well as reduce your peripheral vision, both of which will seriously limit your vision overall. You can also lose your goggles, especially if you wear them on your forehead sometimes.

Then there is the social pressure. Many of us don’t like being the odd one out, and if you are a surfer wearing goggles, you will definitely get a lot of weird looks and giggles. That alone is enough of a dealbreaker for most surfers, regardless of any worse downsides or useful benefits that goggles have.

There are also some benefits which may appeal to you, most obviously being less irritation in your eyes and the ability to see underwater. We have to stress that if you feel more comfortable wearing goggles while surfing, then more power to you. Don’t let what others think about you affect what you want to do, especially if it does no harm to others.

Benefits of wearing goggles while surfing

In general terms, the major reason why one wears goggles in the ocean is to protect one’s eyes. More specifically, it can protect the eyes from the salt in saltwater, bacteria, debris, and even from the reflection of the sun’s rays across the surface of the ocean. We go into each of these points in more detail below.

Keeps irritants out of your eyes

While you can open your eyes underwater, it’s not recommended. We don’t know for sure what kind of bacteria lingers in the waters. Even if the water is reasonably “clean”, the salt in saltwater can remove moisture from your eyes and cause a painful, burning sensation.

This is especially true of surfers who have not spent much time in the water and their eyes have not yet adjusted to the salinity of saltwater. Wearing goggles will keep water from reaching your eyes, preventing any redness, itchiness, and burning sensations.

Again back to the point about bacteria in saltwater, you can potentially get a nasty eye infection called pink eye. Pink eye is characterized by your eyes turning pink and releasing pus or other discharge. If this is not properly treated by a physician, it can eventually cause permanent vision loss.

Therefore, even if you can endure the burning sensation of opening your eyes underwater, that does not mean it’s a good idea to open your eyes underwater.

Provides UV protection and keeps debris away

In addition to protection from irritants in the water, there are also wood splinters or other small debris floating around that can get into your eyes which can physically damage them. Also, a common grievance surfers have is how bright the sunlight is when it reflects off the surface of the water into a surfer’s eyes.

Most goggles are tinted so that they can reduce the intensity of the glare which can greatly soothe your eyes as you’re looking across the surface of the ocean. Without UV protection, your eyes can get blinded, and blood vessels can even burst, causing them to go red (also known as surfer’s eye).

Although not generally a concern, if you are not careful where you are looking without goggles on, in the long term the glare can cause vision loss. Surfers with sensitive eyes may choose to wear goggles over sunglasses specifically to protect their eyes from vision loss.

Allows you to see underwater

One of the primary benefits that protecting your eyes provides is that now you can see clearly underwater.

Although surfers spend most of their time on their surfboard, above the surface of the water, there are serious benefits to being able to see underwater as a surfer as well.

For instance, there are situations where you might need to duck dive, and knowing how far the ocean floor is is a huge advantage. Furthermore, you may want to stay underwater until you know when a wave has passed overhead.

If you are someone who keeps your eyes closed underwater and are guessing when it is safe to surface, then you could stand to benefit from wearing goggles while surfing.

Can use corrective lenses to see more clearly

A major reason to wear goggles while surfing aside from the protection they provide, is to improve their eyesight. No, we are not talking about being able to see underwater.

If you have poor eyesight and wear prescription glasses or contacts for your day-to-day life, you may have realized that you can’t exactly wear your glasses while surfing. You might be able to wear contacts with goggles, and we’ll discuss that really soon.

So if you have to take off your glasses to go surfing, you can get goggles with prescription lenses so that you can continue to see as clearly as you could on land but in the ocean. On top of that, you can get some additional eye protection. It sounds like a win-win.

The major downside of this is the prohibitive cost. It will cost several hundred dollars for you to get a custom pair of prescription goggles that are designed specifically for your eyes only. This may not be something you can justify if you are only a casual surfer, or if you want to try the option we will discuss next.

In lieu of paying hundreds of dollars for custom goggles, many people have wondered – why couldn’t I just wear my contact lenses under my swimming goggles. That is certainly an option, but before you do that, you have to know the downsides.

First, if any ocean water ever comes into contact with your contacts, you should replace them with new ones. This is because the bacteria in the saltwater will linger on your contacts and not even rinsing them in a cleaning solution is enough to fully wash off the bacteria. The longer you wear contacts that have bacteria from the ocean on it, the greater the risk of eye infection.

Second, how much do you rely on your contacts to be able to see? It’s very possible that water may not only reach your contacts, but it can flush out your contacts. Then you will suddenly have blurry vision and that poses a significant risk. For this reason, you should limit how often you remove your goggles, and be prepared to close your eyes at a moment’s notice to keep water from reaching your contacts.

For these reasons, it’s generally not recommended to wear contacts in the ocean. However, getting prescription goggles is expensive, so either wearing contacts or going surfing with blurry vision are the only solutions.

Reasons why most surfers don’t wear goggles

They don’t look good

Look, let’s be honest. Most people are shallow. Many don’t think in terms of “how will this benefit me”, but rather “how does this make me look.” For some surfers, even if goggles have a long list of positives, they would still forgo it because they just don’t like how it looks. It just doesn’t fit their ideal image of how a surfer should look, so for that reason alone, they are resistant to it.

They can be uncomfortable

Even if you have the most comfortable pair of goggles in the world, wearing them for prolonged periods of time will feel uncomfortable.

This may not be an issue if you only surf for 30-45 minutes. But on certain days, when the swell is rolling in and you have the whole day free, you might just decide to spend the whole day surfing.

In this case, eventually the straps will start to dig in and your eyes will start to feel like they are being squeezed for too long. When you take off your goggles, you would feel immediate relief from the pressure, as well as a couple of red rings around your eyes.

In extreme cases, where someone is wearing goggles that are too big for them so they compensate by tightening the straps immensely, this can damage your eyes and really dig into the skin on the sides and back of your head.

Similarly, if the goggles are too small and, instead of sealing over your eye sockets they end up putting pressure directly on your eyes, then this can cause eye damage depending on how much pressure is placed on your eyeballs.

Generally speaking, if your goggles are making you feel uncomfortable, then you either aren’t wearing them properly or you need a new pair that conforms to the shape of your face better.

You can lose them

What, you thought that just because goggles are strapped onto your face that you can’t lose them? Obviously it’s a different story if you are leaving your goggles on your forehead and they get knocked off, but rough waves can easily knock off your goggles even when you are wearing them properly.

This isn’t such a big deal if you have a cheap pair of easily replaceable goggles. However, the issue is when you have an expensive pair of prescription goggles that you also rely on to see. Losing a pair like that is gut wrenching.

The same point applies to any jewelry, headgear, or any loose objects that you might be wearing while surfing. Even if your goggles are buoyant, they could be washed far away by swell and you’d never find them again.

They fog up eventually, obscuring vision

A common problem that affects anybody wearing goggles or dive masks is that they all eventually fog up. There are ways to delay how long it takes to fog up, but eventually you will have to clear your goggles of the fog.

This issue most commonly affects people wearing dive masks or snorkel masks because they cover the nose – a location where hot air is expelled. Just because swimming goggles don’t have a nose pocket doesn’t mean they don’t fog up.

As long as there is any moisture in your goggles, in addition to heat generated from your body and from the sun, the lenses will eventually become coated with a layer of fog. The “fix” is simple enough – remove the goggles, rinse them (don’t use your fingers because the oils on it will rub off on the lenses) and put them back on.

You can clearly see a potential problem – what happens when you make it past a large break and can’t stop to clear your goggles? Then you are forced to ride a wave with foggy goggles.

Depending on how badly your goggles are fogged up, you might still see where you are going or your vision might be completely obscured, making it dangerous for yourself and other divers.

Is there even a need to wear goggles while surfing?

Your head is above water most of the time

Unless you’re constantly falling off your board, you should ideally be spending most of your time on your board with your head above water.

Even when you’re riding a wave, you’re standing up on the wave (on your board specifically) and the water is splashing on your feet, not your face.

When you’re paddling, your back is arched and your head is looking forward, which is, again, out of the water.

The only times when your head is underwater are after you’ve fallen off your board, or if you need to duck dive to dodge another surfer or an incoming wave.

In this circumstance, it would be beneficial to be wearing goggles so that you can see when it’s safe to surface, however it’s still not a necessity and the chances of it happening are quite rare.

There is little need to see underwater while surfing

Even though surfers spend most of their time at the surface of the water, they aren’t there to look underwater like a snorkeler would.

The times when a surfer would be completely submerged underwater were described above, and even then, you don’t really need to see anything (or you can endure the burning sensation of saltwater temporarily).

Even if you choose to close your eyes underwater, you can have a pretty good idea of what’s going on based on your sense of touch. You can feel the motion of the wave as it passes overhead and you can even wait a few seconds longer just to be safe before surfacing.

If you want to take your time to see what’s underwater, you should be snorkeling or scuba diving, not surfing.

Most waves don’t restrict your vision

Wipeouts notwithstanding, most waves should not restrict your vision. When you’re riding on a wave, you are literally standing above it so most of the water is splashing on your feet, not your face.

Even when you’re deep inside a barrel, you can get some water in your eyes, sure, but it’s generally not so bad that you literally can’t keep your eyes open. Imagine walking in the rain without an umbrella on a windy day. Are you wearing goggles, or are you squinting your eyes and still able to move around? That’s sort of what it’s like.

And if we’re talking about waves getting so big that they are obstructing your vision as you’re waiting in a lineup, well you better hope they aren’t too big, ‘cause then you got bigger problems to worry about.

Goggles are more likely to restrict your vision above water

Surfing is such an enjoyable and immersive experience when you’re able to enjoy the scenery. Unfortunately, goggles can literally get in the way of that.

First off, they can block some of your peripheral vision (your side vision) which takes away from your enjoyment and creates blind spots.

Second, you’ll notice that the lenses are slightly tinted. This is beneficial to help reduce bright light and glare and improve your underwater vision, but the downside is that on the surface everything you see is going to have a blue tint to their color.

Third, as we mentioned, the lenses can fog up eventually once it gets warm enough inside your goggles, making everything blurry. You will be forced to take off your goggles to clear them at some point, and this increases the chances of you losing them or water getting in your eyes.

Overall, for every practical benefit that goggles provide a surfer, it also comes with a downside that can negate its utility or even make it outright undesirable for a surfer to want to use. For this reason, goggles are optional and rarely used by most surfers.

Consider surfing with sunglasses instead

Goggles are a fashion faux-pas when you’re a surfer, but not sunglasses. Sunglasses make you look cool on land and in the water.

While sunglasses won’t keep water from getting in your eyes, they can provide your eyes UV and glare protection. While not commonly worn either, they are definitely more popular and accepted by the surfing community than goggles.

Particularly, if you plan on surfing in the long-term, you should definitely get some kind of eye protection. The intense reflection off the surface of the water can result in surfer’s eye and loss of vision over time

Keep in mind, if you plan to do this, you must specifically get sunglasses designed for surfing. They have special features to ensure you won’t lose them, such as floating frames that have the capability to float, greater durability, and a strap so that it stays attached to your body even if they are knocked off your face.

However, if you want to keep water out of your eyes and have glare protection, then goggles are still your best bet.

Parting words

Generally, surfers don’t wear goggles, but you certainly can if you want. There are no rules forbidding it; the reason most surfers don’t wear goggles is because they don’t like how it looks, they don’t like how uncomfortable it can feel, and it can actually restrict their vision on the surface.

The main benefits of wearing goggles while surfing is for UV protection, to let you see underwater for those rare times you fall off your board or have to duck dive, and to keep water out of your eyes.

Many surfers feel like the downsides of wearing goggles outweighs the benefits that they provide. They also really, really don’t like how they make them look. That’s why you’ll see some surfers wear surfing sunglasses instead; see, they don’t mind wearing eyewear if it looks nice.

Whatever the case, the decision is yours whether you want to wear goggles while surfing or not. At the end of the day, if you feel comfortable wearing them and you really want the protection goggles afford you, then more power to you. Don’t let people’s looks or comments turn you off from what you need to do, if you get any that is.

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Photo Credits: Ben Aston, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons