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Solar Protection for Surfers: How to Stay Safe while Surfing

by Miriam Cihodariu

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Solar protection is not a whim that can be safely ignored. If the last few decades have taught us anything about sunbathing, it’s that it can have some very serious health consequences. Working on your tan at the beach without any thought towards protection is a thing of the past. 

But while we’re all pretty much aware of the need for sun protection during vacations and even day to daytime, surfing is a different matter. All the contact with the sand and water makes it difficult to protect your skin from the damage of UV rays.

Still, even if it’s more difficult, it’s not impossible. I’ve put together this guide on how you can enjoy the freedom of an amazing surfing trip while still staying safe from the sun.

How Surfers Are at Risk from Sun Exposure

surfer riding a wave in the indian ocean

Surfers tend to be more exposed than other people to developing skin problems because of the sun. The first and most serious concern is skin cancer.

Researchers estimate that 90 percent of all non-melanoma skin cancers and 86% of melanoma skin cancers are caused by UV radiation from the sun. This means that almost all cases of skin cancer are caused one way or another by improper sun exposure.

It’s enough for your skin to get burned once every two years for your melanoma risk to triple. Burnt skin doesn’t just mean peeling or brown skin. Whenever an area of your body gets pink or red because of a long time spent in the sun, that’s a sunburn. For people with darker skin, a sunburn manifests through an itchy or tender feeling in the area. It doesn’t sound too good, right?

We all have at least a few burnt skin incidents we can remember, especially if surfing frequently. That is why sun protection is no joke and should be treated as a top priority.

Your Eyes Can Suffer from the Sun, Too

sunglasses on the beach

It’s not only about skin cancer, by the way; your eyes might be affected as well. There’s even a condition named surfer’s eye that refers to a permanent thinning of a membrane in your eyes. This thinning leads to vision problems, irritation and itchiness. All because of the sun, of course.

Not only surfers are at risk for developing pterygium (the scientific name for surfer’s eye). It’s also anyone who spends a lot of time in the sun, especially people who practice kitesurfing, canoeing, and any type of water sport, basically.

This is why you shouldn’t ignore protective eyewear for surfing. Even though this type of gear is available, many surfers tend to not wear it because it can be tedious to handle. Still, since the health of your eyes is at risk, this should be enough to change your mind.

How to Protect Your Skin as a Surfer

hand outstretched in the sun by the beach

Solar protection lotions have thankfully become a widespread habit in the summer. But regular sun protection might not cut it when you’re surfing or practicing any watersports. Even if the bottle of lotion is labeled as waterproof, your sun cream is not waterproof. There’s no such thing as a solar shield that does not dissolve under the action of the water.

What can be done, then?

First thing’s first: you will need to re-apply your solar protection lotion once every 30 minutes or as often as possible (at least once an hour). Basically, every time you take break, you need to re-apply your solar protection.

Second of all, you can try keeping your surfing activity for the early hours of the morning and in the evening. This way, you will be out of harm’s way when the solar radiations are at their strongest. Make sure you avoid staying on the beach and surfing between 11 AM and 4 PM. You should be less at risk at any other time.

Third of all, choose solar protection formulas which are specially designed for watersports. There are several surfing solar protection formulas on the market. Look for formulas based on zinc. These mineral sunscreens start protecting you as soon as you spread the lotion on your skin, unlike chemical filters that take about 30 minutes until they kick in.

For extra protection, you can also try using zinc cream underneath the main solar protection lotion that you’re going to use. You can find zinc cream in any drugstore; it’s sold for a variety of uses.

Don’t forget about protecting your lips and the area around your eyes, as well. For this purpose, a solar protection stick is usually the best choice. It’s easy to use on all bodily and facial features.

Further Solar Protection on the Beach

sun hat worn by girl on the beach

Since you’re not exposed to the sun’s damaging rays only when you surf, you should take care of that while spending time on the beach as well. Before any beginner’s surfing class you might be plunging into, there’s a lot of time spent preparing on the shore.

As soon as you get on the beach, you should already have your sun shield on. You should opt for the maximum protection, meaning at least 50 SPF. But a good solar protection lotion is not all.

I know it’s probably not how you envisioned yourself looking, but you should also wear a hat to protect your head from the sun. Sun poisoning is a real concern and only a good sun hat can protect you from it.

Sunglasses are also a must, and, if you can, also use protective eyewear while on the surfboard as well. It will protect you against the surfer’s eye disease we discussed above.

Wrapping It Up

That’s about it! As long as you try to follow the advice above and act responsibly in the sun, you will face minimal risks of sun damage. Your surf vacation will be just as fun even if you need to remember to re-apply your solar protection cream. After all, 5 minutes of precaution is more than worth the tens of minutes of pure bliss that follow, right?


Fancy a getting away from it all and catching some good waves in the sun? Spain, Portugal and France are the ideal sunny destinations for surfing!

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