Wetsuit rashes are most commonly experienced by surfers, but they can affect anybody in any sport as long as they are wearing a wetsuit.
When I first started surfing, I was young, felt invincible, and ignored any discomfort I had felt. I remember the rashes were rampant; I had them on the back of my neck, under my armpits, behind my knees, across my torso.
Eventually it got to a point that I was in total agony and I had to stop. My story is not uncommon, and many surfers regularly wonder what are the optimal wetsuit rash treatments and prevention methods.
The solutions are straightforward: you can stop or prevent wetsuit rashes by wearing a well-fitting surfer wetsuit with blind stitched and taped seams, wearing a rash vest with leggings or compression shorts, using anti-chafe cream, and wearing a wetsuit made with softer neoprene.
To treat wetsuit rashes, you should apply vaseline or a healing ointment such as the baby product used for diaper rashes (seriously). It’s also recommended that you stop surfing for a day or two to let the rash heal. After a while, your skin will eventually toughen up and hopefully you won’t have to deal with rashes anymore.
In the sections below, we will go over in greater detail what wetsuit rashes are, how you can treat and prevent them, as well as some other interesting information pertaining to wetsuit rashes. Furthermore, each point described above will be expanded upon so you can better understand how and why they are effective solutions.
What is a wetsuit rash?
Wetsuit rashes are rashes that develop due to the skin rubbing against the wetsuit repetitively until it causes inflammation and micro-tears.
Thankfully, many modern wetsuits are good at avoiding wetsuit rashes because they are minimally seamed or they have been blindstitched and taped which is a construction method that is waterproof and less likely to cause rashes.
With that said, one misaligned cut or loose seam and that area can cause severe irritation. The most commonly affected areas are the back of your neck, armpits, thighs, torso, and back. Some surfers have been permanently scarred due to the many years of dealing with wetsuit rashes.
Is wetsuit rash the same as surf rash?
Well, the answer to this question depends on how pedantic you are.
Sometimes “surf rash” and “wetsuit rash” are used interchangeably, however, in my opinion they are not the same.
Surfing is not the only sport where the participants wear a wetsuit. If you were scuba diving and got a rash, you would not say that you got a surf rash, you would say you got a wetsuit rash.
Obviously if you were surfing and your wetsuit happened to give you a rash, then fine, call it a surf rash. Even I don’t care enough to argue this point.
However, a wetsuit rash is technically a rash that flared up due to your skin rubbing against a wetsuit, and a surf rash is technically a rash that flared up due to your skin rubbing against the surfboard.
Since surfing is a sport where getting some kind of skin rash is rampant, that’s why there is a specific term called surf rash. Surfers need to learn how to take better care of their skin!
How to prevent wetsuit rash
Get a wetsuit that fits
The primary purpose of a wetsuit is to keep you warm. That said, it can only keep you warm if it fits you snug. These two factors are actually one and the same. And, actually, a snug fit can provide a whole lot more than that: comfort, better range of motion, and the most pertinent to this article, it can reduce the chances of getting a wetsuit rash.
How does a well fitting wetsuit reduce chafing? Any folds in the wetsuit is a location that can chafe against your skin. You get rid of the folds, you reduce chafing. However, this is not a foolproof method.
Furthermore, the “right” fit is different for each person. Not every brand will carry wetsuits with a good fit for your body type. It’s important to try out different wetsuit brands to see which ones tend to make wetsuits that fit your body shape.
If you are buying a wetsuit online, it is even more important to review the size chart for each wetsuit brand because a “small” in one brand may not be quite the same as a “small” in another brand. It’s very important to read the customer reviews to see if anybody recommends sizing up or down for a better fit.
I recommend you go to a physical store and try on a wetsuit for more accuracy. Be very sure that you are comfortable with a wetsuit before you take it out into the water. Most stores’ return policy states that as soon as the wetsuit has been worn in the water then they will no longer accept returns.
Get a surfer wetsuit
We need to make this distinction: you should get a wetsuit specifically designed for surfing. For example, there is a difference between a scuba diving wetsuit and a surfing wetsuit.
Wearing a sport specific wetsuit can help you perform better at the activity you will be doing. If you happen to have a scuba wetsuit already but want to wear it for surfing or vice versa, you will not get the performance you want.
Allow me to illustrate. A surfing wetsuit can reduce chafing because it is designed to be more flexible and mobile at the cost of insulation – mobility is more of a priority for surfers. Conversely, a scuba wetsuit prioritizes insulation but is likely to be thicker and less flexible than a surfing wetsuit – it is better to be warm while scuba diving than mobile.
There are even differences in the zipper placement. A surfing wetsuit has the zipper in the back so that it doesn’t get in the way when you’re lying flat against the board. Scuba wetsuits will have the zipper in the front so that it doesn’t get in the way of the scuba tanks.
I am often asked if it’s okay to wear a scuba diving/swimming/water skiing/kayaking/fishing wetsuit for surfing instead of a surfing wetsuit. It seems like my answer is no, but actually it depends on your situation.
If you are young or tight on cash and you already have a wetsuit from another sport, then in the meantime, it’s the most cost effective option to reuse what you already have. It’s not like it’s the end of the world if you use the “wrong” wetsuit for surfing. However, expect to be restricted in movement and possibly covered in rashes.
Make sure your wetsuit “seams” good
It’s not really the neoprene material of the wetsuit giving you rashes but rather the interior seams of the wetsuit. Seams are the joints between different pieces of neoprene that make up your wetsuit. Depending on how they are stitched together, they are the most common areas where you can get rashes.
There are numerous ways to join wetsuit panels. You have: stitching, gluing, welding, and taping. Oftentimes many of these methods are used in combination for a better seal. As mentioned, a good seal will prevent water from leaking in which keeps you warm, but they can also prevent rashes.
If your wetsuit is chafing, check the seams in the corresponding interior area that’s rubbing against your skin. Look for bumpy or raised seams, loose taping, deteriorated joints, or cracked welds.
In general, the less seams your wetsuit has (i.e. it is only made with a few panels of neoprene), then the less likely there will be water leaks and wetsuit rashes. Conversely, if your wetsuit is made from many panels of neoprene, it will have more seams, which increases the likelihood of leaks and chafing.
Rub petroleum jelly on your skin
These products come in compact versions that make them easy to bring when traveling. Plus, they are versatile because you can use them for many sports other than surfing, such as running, cycling, hiking, triathlons, you name it. They are easy to apply, stay on for a long time, and they just work. They are also readily available in most sports stores.
When I first started surfing, if I wasn’t getting a rash from the wetsuit then it was from the surfboard. I started putting Vaseline on my most commonly affected areas (neck and under the armpits) and switched over to wearing rash vests when it was warm enough.
Sometimes I would forget to bring my Vaseline and I would go out of my way to buy another jar instead of trying to tough it out. I get Vietnam flashbacks whenever I think about my skin getting rubbed raw and refuse to go surfing without some kind of protection.
Wear a rash vest
If the weather is warm enough, instead of showing more skin, you should instead swap from a wetsuit to a rash vest and leggings/compression shorts. As the name suggests, rash vests are thin shirts that provide a layer of protection from rashes, skin irritation, and the sun’s UV rays.
Unlike wetsuits, they are not effective at keeping you warm, but their other benefits are great. With that said, you can wear them under a wetsuit to prevent chafing. You can also wear compression shorts or leggings to protect your legs from chafing.
There are many rash guard designs. To reduce chafing, we recommend getting a form-fitting short or long sleeve rash guard with no zippers (zippers can cause chafing).
If you prefer a looser fit, then that is certainly doable. However, a looser fit means that you cannot wear it under a wetsuit because then the folds would become a source of irritation which defeats the purpose.
Don’t wear your wetsuit or rash vest for too long
Although your wetsuit or rash vest might seem like appropriate wear for the beach, you should not wear it for too long before or after surfing.
It might seem annoying to swap to another set of swimwear; what if you still wanted to hang around with friends and family on the beach? I remember being younger and hanging out with some old buddies, having snacks, playing on the beach and just having a good time without ever taking my wetsuit off. Little did I know this contributed to my chafing. I almost regret it, but those were some good times.
You see, the longer you’re wearing your wetsuit – seeing as how it is the source of your chafing – the more your skin gets rubbed for longer. Plus, wetsuits aren’t intended to be worn for long distance cycling, playing soccer, or to be worn for long periods of time.
Therefore, if you decide to wear your wetsuit for any activities before or after surfing, know that you’re just putting yourself at greater risk of wetsuit rash. Just wear the wetsuit for surfing only and take it off as soon as possible.
Wash your wetsuit thoroughly
I hope this is something you are already doing, and this section serves as a friendly reminder to not skimp out.
Whether you were in saltwater or freshwater, you should rinse your wetsuit with fresh water after each session and then hang it in a well-ventilated location away from direct sunlight using wetsuit racks to fully dry before storing it.
All of this is crucial because you can get a wetsuit rash if your wetsuit is dirty, not just from the seams rubbing against your skin. The salt in saltwater can irritate your skin. Any leftover moisture can result in mold growth. Plus, let’s be honest, you’ve also peed in your wetsuit. If you haven’t at least rinsed it, then it will quickly become stinky, unsanitary, and give you a skin rash as well.
Quickly break in a new wetsuit
The first few times you’re wearing a new wetsuit, it will probably be a little too stiff for your liking. It might feel like you don’t quite have the flexibility you want, and so you may find it hard to perform the same motions you usually do. You might also think that the wetsuit is a little too tight and that the seams are pressing too hard against your skin, causing it to chafe.
While there is certainly the possibility that this wetsuit is too tight, it’s also likely that you just need to break in the wetsuit. Breaking in a wetsuit means that you wear it and move around in it so that it loosens up. It’s the same concept for when you buy new shoes, new jeans, or anything that can be worn.
To speed up the breaking in process, you can specifically do some light stretches or some exaggerating movements during your warmup routine. This can help stretch out some of the tight material and increase your flexibility.
We’re going to contradict one of our previous points and recommend you wear the wetsuit for as long as you can, including even out of the water, if you really want to speed up the breaking in process. You just need to use it a bunch until it gets loosened up and then perhaps it will feel more comfortable and stop giving you rashes.
Lastly, wetsuits don’t last forever. Maybe you have an old wetsuit that you’ve been using for years that you love but it is starting to get a little thin. It’s probably a good time to get a new wetsuit that can insulate you better, but you will have to go through the breaking in process all over again.
Wear a wetsuit made with softer neoprene
Water sports gear manufacturers are always innovating and improving their products, and there have been some advancements made in wetsuit technology in recent years. Neoprene, the primary material used in the construction of a wetsuit, has gotten softer and more comfortable while retaining its insulating benefits.
At this point, we can confidently say all of the major surfing brands have made great strides in their wetsuit technology and are making their wetsuits using this improved neoprene, at least for their high-end wetsuits. Typically, the more expensive wetsuits will be more flexible, comfortable, with superior insulating capabilities.
That said, none of this matters unless the wetsuit fits your body shape. Do not spend huge amounts of money on the first wetsuit you find. Try out various brands and see which brand tends to make wetsuits that fit you the best.
Pay attention to neck chafing
We have mentioned that the back of the neck is one of the most common areas to experience surf rash. There are many reasons for this. The most obvious one is that surfing requires lots of head movements, which provides plenty of opportunities for the neck to rub against the collar of the wetsuit.
Another reason is that the neck area has to be tight to reduce water flow. This is necessary so that the wetsuit can keep you warm and is part of the reason why wetsuits should fit you snug.
Next, the neck is simply a sensitive area of the body, and many wetsuits have zippers and velcro that zip all the way up or fasten around the neck.
Knowing these facts, there are some tips you can follow to reduce chafing around the neck. First is to pay particular attention to the zipper/velcro and try to position them in such a way that they do not reach your neck. If this is not possible, you need to get a different wetsuit. You can also use Vaseline to make your skin smoother, reducing the friction and the chances of chafing.
Don your wetsuit away from sand
As Anakin Skywalker so famously said: “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere.” I concur wholeheartedly.
Memes aside, you need to be very careful changing into your wetsuit when there is sand nearby. A few specks of sand rubbing against your skin is enough to cause surf rash over an entire surfing session.
If you are standing on sand, even if you’re dry, it will be nearly impossible to keep specks of sand from getting inside the wetsuit.
When I was younger, this was a mistake I made all of the time. I always wondered why there was always sand and sometimes even small sticks or even leaves inside of my wetsuit. They were really irritating!
Change into your wetsuit away from sand and you will reduce the likelihood of getting any surf rashes.
Make wetsuit rash a thing of the past by following the straightforward and practical tips provided in this article. You may have already heard of some of them, but some of them may be new to you.
The best thing you can do for yourself to prevent wetsuit rash is to get a wetsuit with blindstitched and glued or taped seams. It’s also imperative that the wetsuit fits you snug. Make sure that you’re not just getting any wetsuit, but rather one that is specifically designed for surfing.
We also highly recommend always bringing a travel size jar of Vaseline. By applying Vaseline over the problem areas that tend to experience wetsuit rash (e.g. back of the neck, under the armpits), you can decrease friction and therefore reduce chafing.
Some slight changes in behavior can also do wonders for preventing wetsuit rash. Do you usually wear your wetsuit for long periods of time? Try taking it off as soon as you’re done surfing. Do you usually change into a wetsuit while standing on sand? You are introducing sand inside the wetsuit which can chafe your skin.
Over time, your skin will naturally toughen up and you will experience wetsuit rash less often. However, until that happens and even afterwards, you should still follow these tips to ensure you remain rash free. And if you do happen to suffer from a nasty rash, we recommend rubbing healing ointment on it and taking a day or two off to let it heal. Good luck and happy surfing!
Last update on 2024-02-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API