How to Treat and Prevent Surf Rash

how to treat and prevent surf rash

Many surfers really dislike wearing a wetsuit. Wearing a still-damp and cold wetsuit at 6 am in the morning is a bitter pill to swallow and not having to deal with it sounds like a dream. With warm, tropical waves, you can ditch the wetsuit, but now there’s something else to worry about: surf rash.

Ever felt like your skin was getting rubbed by something abrasive while surfing, and then seeing a bunch of pesky red spots or rashes all over your torso and thighs? Then you’ve already experienced a surf rash. If you plan on surfing without a wetsuit, it’s something you need to be aware of so you can avoid it. Thankfully, surf rash is easily treatable, and what’s more, it can be prevented. By wearing a rash vest, applying ointment to affected areas, or taking time off, you can treat and prevent surf rash from flaring up.

In this article, we’ll discuss ways that you can treat surf rash if you’ve already got it, as well as how you can prevent it from occurring in the first place.

What is surf rash?

Surf rash is a superficial ailment that most surfers have had the displeasure of experiencing at some point or another. To put it simply, it is a mild skin abrasion. It commonly occurs to surfers that use foam boards as the friction is higher.

We need to make the distinction that surf rash is not the same as wetsuit rash. A wetsuit rash is the result of the wetsuit rubbing against your skin. A surf rash is caused by bare skin rubbing against your surfboard or board shorts.

Here’s how surf rashes can flare up. When skin is exposed to saltwater, it softens up and becomes extra sensitive. Skin becomes susceptible to micro-abrasions caused by repetitive friction against the surfboard, wax, stomp pad, wetsuit, and even from board shorts.

Additionally, tiny, abrasive sea salts in salt water can also contribute to surf rash. Over time one’s skin will develop red, bumpy rashes – that’s surf rash. The weakened skin will experience pain, inflammation, and in bad cases, a superficial wound.

If you’re lucky, a surf rash will be nothing more than a mildly painful rash that goes away on its own if you stop surfing. However, if you ignore it and continue surfing, then the surf rash can develop into a full-on staph infection. Either treat it properly or stop surfing for a while!

Thankfully, surf rash can be easily treated, and what’s more, you can prevent it in the first place. So don’t let this unfortunate ailment stop you from surfing, read on to learn how to deal with surf rash.

What causes surf rash?

Sometimes surf rash just comes and goes, and some surfers have struggled with rashes on and off for years. What exactly is going on that causes surfrash to appear sporadically?

When I first started surfing, I thought the rashes were the side effect of too many consecutive mornings and evenings spent surfing in a wetsuit.

Then I moved over to wearing a rash vest, but I still felt a searing pain on my thighs after surfing and thought that the culprit was low quality materials from a pair of cheap board shorts I purchased in Thailand.

Even not that long ago, I thought the rashes on my chest and under my armpits was wax irritating my skin and giving me the worst upper body wax session known to man. I would eventually just shave most of the hair off my body to prevent this.

Now that I know what I know, while I wasn’t too far off the mark with my initial thoughts (i.e. that friction against wetsuits, board shorts, and surfboard wax were irritating my skin), unfortunately there’s still not much I could do about it because the underlying problem was more all-encompassing and basically unavoidable.

That is, surf rash occurs when the skin is softened after it is exposed to saltwater and the tiny, abrasive sea salts rubbing against the skin.

Particularly if you’re new to surfing, your skin will become extremely sensitive, and the repetitive motion of your skin rubbing against the surfboard, board shorts, and wetsuit can cause inflammation, pain, and micro-tears on your skin.

Basically, if you’re in the ocean and your skin is rubbing against something, chances are high that you will develop a surf rash in those areas.

That’s why the focus of the next section is to educate you on ways you can protect your skin from surf rash.

How to prevent surf rash

There is no way to completely prevent surf rash from occurring; it’s just an unavoidable part of surfing. Even tiny changes like switching your wetsuit, wax, or returning to surfing after a long break can cause surf rash to flare up.

As annoying as surf rash sounds, thankfully our body is incredibly resilient. Over time, the areas of skin that are exposed to friction will toughen up and then surf rash will not become an issue anymore. However, until that happens, you need to take care of your skin as it gets accustomed to the conditions.

In this section we provide some basic steps you can follow to drastically decrease your chances of getting a surf rash so you can avoid it from the get-go.

  • Stop using wax comb. A wax comb provides extra traction on your board and is often used for cold water surfing. For warm water surfing, without having a few millimeters of neoprene between your skin and the board, the wax that is normally so helpful in cold water will tear your skin. Trust me when I say you do not want to experience this first hand, so just take my advice. You don’t want to use wax comb for warm water surfing.
  • Wear a rash guard. Well golly gee, am I telling you that in order to prevent surf rash, you should wear the product that is literally designed to help prevent rashes? You betcha. If you didn’t know about rash guards, now you do, so please consider wearing one if you are constantly suffering from rashes. Make sure it fits you well. Rash guards even have the added benefit of protecting you from the sun. Just don’t expect them to keep you warm – that’s not what they’re designed for.
  • Wear surf leggings or compression shorts. Rash guards only protect your torso, but what about your legs? Many people get surf rash from their board shorts rubbing against their thighs, so the easiest solution are surf leggings or compression shorts under your board shorts. Even regular yoga/workout leggings will do; just have an extra layer between your skin and the abrasive surface.
  • Wear a thinner wetsuit. In case you’re worried about overheating, you can get wetsuits thinner than the usual 3/2 thickness. They are still just as effective as any other wetsuit at preventing surf rash as long as you buy ones with blind stitched and taped seams. Otherwise, the seams can become a source of irritation for your skin which defeats the purpose.
  • Apply a layer of lubricating ointment. If there are some sensitive areas that you suspect will develop a surf rash, then apply some lubricating ointment (e.g. Vaseline) before a rash flares up. Common areas are around your neck, collar, and armpit areas. If you’re wearing a new wetsuit, we recommend doing this as well.
  • Develop tougher skin. The more your skin is exposed to these conditions, the tougher your skin will get. After a week or two, you will hopefully stop getting a surf rash. The tips provided above can help you toughen up your skin with significantly less or no discomfort.

How to treat surf rash

Sometimes, even after doing everything you can to prevent surf rash, you can still get a minor flare up. In this section, we will go over how you can treat your surf rash so that it heals quickly and doesn’t worsen into something more severe.

Keep in mind that this is general advice and we are not doctors so you follow this advice at your own risk; if you feel that your surf rash is extremely painful or you suspect something is wrong, go see a doctor right away.

Surf rash creams/ointments

As a surfer, you’ll need a good healing ointment as much as you need sunscreen. Treating irritated skin immediately after a surf session is the fastest way you can set yourself on the path to healing.

Surf rashes start out as shallow wounds and, if they are not exposed to any more abrasion, will heal after a day or two. To facilitate faster healing, you should rinse the affected areas with clean water and then apply your preferred ointment (e.g. moisturizing cream or healing ointment) on the rashes.

Some examples of products you can use are Lucas' Papaw Ointment, Aquaphor Healing Ointment (yes, the baby product), and how could we not mention Vaseline.

If you prefer natural solutions, then consider using Aloe Vera Gel. Not only does it offer nice pain relief from your surf rash by soothing the stinging, but it also feels cool to the touch which is soothing in its own way. It’s also a great option for treating sunburned skin.

These are not necessarily the best and may not even be available where you live, so don’t limit yourself to only these brands. Just be careful when applying ointment before your surf session; any ointment that leaks out onto the board will make it extra slippery.

Let surf rash heal before surfing again

I know it’s a little blasphemous for me to recommend not surfing, but I’m going to do it anyway because it’s good advice for someone who is in agony. Despite that, this is perhaps the single most ignored piece of advice in all of surfing history.

In a keen surfer’s mind, the phrase “stop surfing” doesn’t exist so they’ll lather a layer of ointment on their surf rash and then grimace as they bear the pain of their skin getting torn apart over and over again.

We all know why this is a bad idea, but it just needs to be said for the record. By continuing to surf in spite of your worsening pain, you are exposing a fresh wound to more salt water and not allowing it to heal.

What may have only been a minor problem that would have healed on its own can actually worsen and deepen, turning a once shallow surf rash into something more severe.

It can be painful watching your friends load up their boards and leave you twiddling your thumbs at home – FOMO, the fear of missing out, is a drag indeed – but unless you want to be sidelined for even longer long term, letting a rash heal before you resume surfing is the fastest way for you to get back in the action.

Parting words

Unfortunately, surf rash is something that all surfers will have to deal with from time to time, however, the hardest part is when you’re a beginner and you aren’t sure what the heck is happening that’s causing you to have rash flare ups all over your body.

You can rest easy knowing that surf rash is very common so it’s nothing serious, but if you are not letting it heal, then it can get a lot worse, possibly leading to a staph infection.

Most surf rashes will heal if you give yourself 1-2 days of rest. You can also apply healing ointment or aloe vera gel on it to soothe the pain and speed up the recovery process.

The best way to deal with surf rash is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. You may be tempted to go shirtless in tropical waters, but we recommend you at least wear a rash vest. Having an extra layer between your skin and the surfboard can make all the difference in preventing surf rash.

Also consider wearing leggings instead of board shorts, or even just wear a thinner full wetsuit just so you have that extra layer of protection. You can also apply ointments on your skin underneath the wetsuit so that you do not get wetsuit rash either.

By using common sense and taking some time off when you need to, plus protecting yourself with an extra layer as well as using ointments, you can prevent surf rash from even flaring up in the first place and surf pain-free.

Last update on 2021-10-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API