How to Avoid Surf Rash Without Avoiding the Water

Surfer heading out to surf at Capitola California USA
Martyn Goddard / Getty Images

Surf rash sucks. At its least severe, surf rash is an annoyance that can ruin a session and appear pretty gross on land. At its most severe, it can be a bleeding sore capable of being infected and causing permanent scars.

What Is Surf Rash?

Surf rash is exactly what you think it is: an abrasion that results from repeated and prolonged friction during surfing. The rash generally comes from repeated contact with wax or wetsuit rather than the actual act of surfing.

Surfboard Wax and Rashes

Surfboard wax is used to keep riders from sliding off their boards. It is not wax as most have come to know it that is used to make things slide and slip. Surf wax is grippy and sticky. Made mainly of paraffin or sometimes beeswax, surf wax can irritate the soft tissue on your stomach, chest, and inner thighs that all come in constant contact during a standard surf session. This repeated friction of the skin, which causes irritation.

Ironically, you can make your skin less susceptible to rash by surfing MORE. That’s right. Most rashes occur after you have spent a long time out of the water and your skin has become softer and less resistant to its contact with the wax. However, if you haven’t surfed in a while, it’s best to wear a rash guard (lycra shirt) to help keep your skin from getting too rashed-out. As for other rashes such as inner thigh and armpit (armpit rash comes from repeated skin to skin contact), you can use Vaseline after surfing to soothe and lubricate. Be careful about using Vaseline though since its lubricant powers are strong and can easily ruin your wax and make for a slippery and miserable surf session.

Wetsuit Rash

Another form of rash comes from your wetsuit. Today’s wetsuits are great in that they are often seamless and have been tailored pretty effectively to avoid most rashes. However, one stray seam or wrong cut in the fit can cause a major irritant to areas like your neck and armpits and thus cause a hideously painful rash. I have seen surfers forever scarred on the backs of their necks from years of wetsuit rash.

You can also use Vaseline (petroleum jelly) to avoid wetsuit rash, and since it’s inside your neoprene suit, it’s fine to use prior to a session. Simply apply a liberal amount on the area of the rash. It’s not a cure-all but it will help. You can also wear a rash guard inside you wetsuit to soften the rub against your skin.

Sometimes It's Unavoidable

If you are surfing multiple sessions over multiple days, the odds are you will get some rash. Sometimes, you can get it simply from your legs rubbing against the inside of your baggies. The more your surf in general, the less serious rash you will get. However, when the waves are pumping and the sun is out, you’ll probably choose to worry about the pain and irritation of your rash AFTER you are done surfing.

Other Remedies

Other ways to soothe and protect your surf ravaged skin include Neosporin and a product called Belly Jelly, but for the most part, a good, solid rash is part of surfing and at the end of a great swell it is a painful trophy of sorts of a great experience. However, if the rash looks very irritated or becomes swollen with raised white edges, check with a doctor. A rash can (on rare occasion) get infected.

Have fun and go rip!