How to Protect Yourself from the Sun While Surfing

When people conjure up an image of the stereotypical surfer, the picture they likely have in their heads probably differs in many ways. However, I bet there is one characteristic that is nearly universal – tan skin.

That fiery ball in the sky 150 million kilometers away is one certainty surfers cannot escape from. Unless you’re surfing in the Arctic Circle (crazy people actually surf there), it’s up there everyday. Surfing is an immensely rewarding sport/lifestyle/addiction, but it’s very important for us to know how to protect ourselves from what is probably the greatest risk we face out in the water – the sun.

We are not trying to be alarmist, however, we do think being informed of what dangers exist, understanding their effects on our bodies, and what the basic methods of protecting ourselves are, is a small responsibility we should all take upon ourselves.

We must learn how to protect ourselves from the sun while surfing or engaging in any outdoor activities.

Although anyone who spends any appreciable amount of time outside should be concerned about the effects that UV light has on their bodies, surfers are especially susceptible. It’s because surfers are so cool that the sun shines more on us. Sorry, bad joke but I couldn’t resist.

For serious though, there is usually no shade for surfers to hide in, we are out mostly in full sun, and in addition to the sun pounding down from above, we are subject to the reflection of UV rays off of the water. And, of course, once you get a taste of surfing you quickly turn into a frothing addict who simply can’t help herself from spending every spare moment out on the water.

Warning: Surfing may be highly addictive and may cause major smiling | @highondreams enjoying the surf life | Location: Patong Beach

surf in kata beach phuket

Safe Exposure

It’s important to note, in the middle of all of this sun-hating, that exposure to the sun also has important benefits on our bodies, especially synthesizing vitamin D which strengthen bones and just generally makes you happier (no, really). The thing is, for people located at latitudes near the equator, it takes just several minutes of sun exposure per day to make this happen. I know what you’re thinking: “more sun equals more vitamin D equals supreme happiness”. Sorry, but it’s more of a bell curve where once you’ve had that little bit of “healthy” sun exposure, it quickly starts to do damage.

What’s The Damage?

When we say damage, we are talking about those nasty invisible UVA and UVB rays that give you dried out, wrinkly skin that makes you look 80 when you’re 30.

In response to this onslaught of radiation, your body creates melanin. You might not be familiar with this word, but you probably know what it is. It’s a tan. Or more precisely, it is your body’s defense mechanism to protect your lower layers of skin from getting fried.

In some cultures (not Thailand though!) it is hip to have a tan. If you buy into this trend and keep a nice dark tan going your whole life you end up looking like a stretched out leather bag when you get old. You’ve seen these people: old ladies at retirement homes in Florida, stolid old bush-hands from the Australian outback, or salty sailors and fisherman after years on deck.

Then, of course, there’s skin cancer. A couple kinds of carcinoma, and melanoma. The former are more prevalent and less serious but still not a walk in the park. The latter is super-serious, difficult to treat, and can spread all over the body. It’s highly recommended to avoid getting any of these. Of course you don’t have a choice, but you do have the choice to reduce your chances.

Be aware of the characteristics of melanoma. Remember the acronym ABCDE

  1. – Asymmetry
  2. – Irregular Border
  3. – Color variations, especially red, white, and blue tones in a brown or black lesion
  4. – Diameter greater than 6 cm
  5. – Elevated surface
surf in kata beach phuket

Safety First

It goes without saying that the best protection from the sun is to simply avoid it like a vampire. However, it’s tough surfing in the dark so let’s explore some other options.

The next best thing to no sun exposure is the rash guard (i.e. lycra, rashie, etc.). These short or long sleeve shirts are made from special stretchy materials that are woven in a specific way and/or treated with special coatings which protect your skin from the sun. Similar to SPF ratings for sunscreen, they are identified by UPF ratings (ultraviolet protection factor) with the majority falling into the 30-50+ range. Although some surfers simply wear a cotton t-shirt as sun protection, you can’t be sure how much protection it is actually delivering. Better safe than sorry – wear something with a UPF rating.

Why wear a rashguard instead of lathering up with sunscreen?

Here are just a few reasons:

  • The rashguard is reusable
  • Good sunscreen is expensive
  • Many sunscreens have ingredients that are not good for you or the ocean
  • Sunscreen will make your board slippery
  • Rashguards protect your chest from irritation and from jellyfish stings, etc.

Protect yourself with a

Surfista Women’s UPF 50+ Long Sleeve Athletic Rashguard

Or with a

Speedo Men’s UPF 50+ Easy Long Sleeve Rashguard Swim Tee

From The Neck Up

Since it is unlikely you want to wear a rashguard on your face, we are going to have to have the sunscreen talk.

Ooooo…now there’s a tan line!

Full disclosure: we produce our own brand of sunscreen, which means we are biased…but you should still buy it!! 😉

Bucket hats help protect your eyes from the sun’s rays but can be uncomfortable to wear while surfing | Location: Surin Beach, Phuket

Sure, hats help, but they are a pain in the @$$ and you still get plenty of sun reflecting off of the water.

Since you are protecting your torso with a rashguard (you are, right?) and you likely have something covering your butt, we still need think about protecting our faces, ears, neck, and legs.

I’ll just skip all of the reasoning, scientific studies, and technical mumbo-jumbo and get straight to the point: there are two types of sunscreens, chemical and physical.

Read the ingredients when shopping for sunscreen. Do you know what you’re applying onto your body?

surf in kata beach phuket

Your Skin is the Largest Organ Of Your Body

Chemical sunscreens are full of nasty junk and if you have any respect for your body and the ocean you won’t use them. These are all of the super clear, non-oily ones that most people wear out of vanity. The active ingredient usually starts with “octo-something something”.

There are two types of physical sunscreens: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Choose a sunscreen with zinc oxide as the active ingredient (even if it is not Sol Sauce…but you should choose Sol Sauce). Zinc oxide does the best job of protecting you, isn’t absorbed into the skin, doesn’t oxidize in the sun, is the best option for sensitive skin, and on and on. The only reason every sunscreen doesn’t use zinc oxide is because it is difficult to make it clear on the skin.

Always apply all natural ingredients. Avoid applying chemicals or toxins into your body | Made in Phuket

Don’t go crazy looking for SPF ten zillion sunscreen either. SPF 10 blocks 90% of UV light while SPF 30 blocks 97%. Gains in protection from high SPF numbers are marginal. It’s more important for us surfers to make sure we use something waterproof that stay on for a couple hours.

So that’s surfers’ relationship to the sun in a nutshell. Don’t get too paranoid about being out in the sun all of the time, but put a little effort into getting into a routine of protecting yourself. Make an informed choice about the products you use and how they might affect your health and the environment.

Surf’s up!