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Article: What is a surf rash?

What is a surf rash?

What is a surf rash?

A surf rash, also known as a surfing rub or a wetsuit rash, is a skin irritation that happens as a result of material continuously rubbing against wet skin during surfing activities. 

A surf rash is not contagious or a disease, it is a physical reaction to the friction between the skin and wet surfing equipment, such as surfboards, wetsuits, or rash guards. 

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How long does it last?

Learn about symptoms, treatments, and preventions so you know what to expect and how to react if a surf rash develops during your day at the beach.

What are the causes of surf rash?

The main causes of surf rash include:

  • Friction. Prolonged contact and rubbing between the skin and the surfboard, wetsuit, or rash guard can cause irritation and abrasion.
  • Saltwater. Extended exposure to salt water can dry out and irritate the skin.
  • Sand and debris. Sand, seashells, and other small particles in the water can rub against the skin, causing further irritation and abrasion.
  • Wetsuit irritation. Ill-fitting, old, or poor-quality wetsuits can chafe and rub against the skin, causing rashes, especially in areas like the neck, armpits, and inner thighs.
  • Prolonged exposure. Long hours in the water while surfing increases the likelihood of developing surf rash due to extended contact with the surfboard and other irritants.
  • Sensitive skin. Some individuals may have more sensitive skin that is prone to irritation, making them more susceptible to developing surf rash.

What are the symptoms of surf rash?

The symptoms of surf rash can be different. The severity of symptoms depends on factors such as the duration of exposure, skin sensitivity, and the intensity of the friction. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Redness. The affected skin area may appear red, pink, or flushed due to inflammation caused by the constant rubbing.
  • Itching. Surf rash can cause itching or a burning sensation on the irritated skin, which may worsen when the skin is dry or exposed to hot water.
  • Rash or bumps. A visible rash or small, raised bumps may appear on the affected area.
  • Mild pain or discomfort. The constant friction can cause mild pain, discomfort, or a stinging sensation, especially when the irritated skin is touched or exposed to saltwater.
  • Chafing. In some cases, surf rash may lead to chafing, which is characterized by raw, irritated skin that may crack or bleed.
  • Skin peeling or flaking. As the rash heals, the affected skin may start to peel or flake, similar to a mild sunburn.

Surf rash symptoms may worsen if left untreated or with continued exposure to irritants. This can lead to more severe discomfort and a longer healing time. Identify the symptoms early and take appropriate measures to treat and prevent further irritation.

How to treat surf rash

Follow these methods to treat surf rash:

  • Cleanse the area. Gently wash the affected skin with a mild, fragrance-free cleanser and warm water. Avoid scrubbing or irritating the rash further. Avoid using cold water. Pat dry with a clean, soft towel.
  • Apply an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. Use a 0.5% or 1% hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation, itching, and irritation. Apply a thin layer to the rash twice daily.
  • Soothe with aloe vera. The cooling and moisturizing properties of aloe vera gel can provide relief. Apply a generous amount after cleansing and letting the skin dry.
  • Use an anti-itch cream. Anti-itch creams containing pramoxine or menthol can temporarily relieve itching associated with surf rash.
  • Take oral antihistamines. Oral antihistamines like cetirizine or loratadine can help control itching and swelling from surf rash. 
  • Apply a thick, fragrance-free moisturizer. Keep the rash hydrated with rich, fragrance-free cream or ointment after other treatments.
  • Use wet wraps. Damp soft cotton coverings and leave them on affected areas to soothe and promote healing of surf rash overnight.
  • Avoid irritants. Don't re-expose the rash to saltwater, sand, or surf equipment until it's fully healed, as this can severely delay recovery.

When should I see a doctor?

You should seek medical attention for surf rash if the condition does not improve with home treatment or if the symptoms worsen. Here are some specific situations when it's recommended to see a doctor:

Severe or worsening symptoms

If the rash becomes increasingly red, swollen, painful, or starts oozing pus, it could indicate a bacterial infection that requires medical treatment. Seek prompt medical attention if the surf rash spreads rapidly or covers large areas of the body.

See a doctor if you develop fever, chills, or other signs of a systemic infection, which can be a complication of an untreated surf rash.

Lack of improvement with home treatment

If you have been treating the surf rash at home with over-the-counter creams, moisturizers, and antihistamines, but there is no significant improvement after 7-10 days, it's time to consult a doctor.

A persistent or worsening rash may require prescription-strength topical corticosteroids or oral medications to control inflammation and promote healing.

Presence of open sores or blisters

If the surf rash develops open sores, blisters, or areas of broken skin, it increases the risk of infection and scarring.

Seek medical attention on time to prevent further complications and receive appropriate treatment, which may include oral antibiotics.

Severe itching or discomfort

While some itching is common with surf rash, if it becomes severe and disrupts your sleep or daily activities, it's advisable to see a doctor.

They may prescribe stronger antihistamines or other medications to provide relief and allow the rash to heal properly.

Recurrent surf rash

If you experience frequent or recurrent episodes of surf rash despite taking preventive measures, it's a good idea to consult a dermatologist.

They can evaluate your skin condition, provide guidance on more effective prevention strategies, and rule out any underlying skin conditions that may be contributing to the problem.

How to prevent surf rash?

Surf rash can be an uncomfortable and unsightly condition, but there are effective ways to prevent it. With the right precautions, you can reduce friction, protect your skin, and enjoy your time in the water without unwanted side effects.

Here are the best surf rash protection tips:

Wear protective gear

Investing in a SwimZip high-quality rash guard is one of the best lines of defense against surf rash. These garments create a layer of protection between your skin and the abrasive surfaces of the surfboard and saltwater. Our rash guards are made with lightweight, stretchy material that won't restrict your movements.

Our long-sleeve rash guards not only guard you against surf rash, but they are also the perfect UV protective swim jacket to provide extra sun protection for your back, chest, and shoulders. We offer short-sleeved rash guards, too, for those who prefer more freedom of movement in their arms and shoulders.

For example, this Cali girl women rash guard features short sleeves and a high neck design to offer maximum sun protection for your upper body during outdoor water activities.


Woman in a SwimZip rash guard at the beach—What is a surf rash


Another great piece of protective gear is a wetsuit. In colder temperatures, wetsuits not only keep you warm but also offer protection against surf rash.

Surf leggings, board shorts, and swim trunks are also good protection against surf rash. Our swim trunks come with built-in liners that can reduce the risk of rash.

Use barrier products

Before hitting the waves, apply a waterproof barrier cream, coconut oil, or Vaseline (petroleum jelly) to any exposed skin. These products create a slick surface that minimizes friction and prevents the salty water from directly irritating your skin.

Some folks prefer non-petroleum-based gels over petroleum jelly, as it can degrade wetsuits and is not eco-friendly.

Body glide balms are plant-based balms that form a protective barrier on the skin. They can prevent rubbing and chafing without damaging wetsuits or polluting the marine environment. 

Rinse off after surfing

As soon as you're done surfing, rinse off with fresh water. This simple step will remove any lingering salt, sand, or surf wax that could continue to irritate your skin and lead to rash development.

Maintain your surfboard

Regularly refresh the surfboard wax to prevent surf rash. Old, uneven wax can create a bumpy surface that increases friction and abrasion against your skin.

Heal existing rash first

If you already have a mild rash, it's best to let it fully heal before surfing again. Re-exposing an existing rash to salt water can worsen the condition and delay the healing process.

How long does surf rash last?

The duration of a surf rash can vary depending on several factors, including the severity of the rash, the individual's skin sensitivity, and how well the rash is cared for after it develops. 

Generally, a mild surf rash can start to improve within a few days if it is properly treated and no further irritation occurs. Most cases of surf rash can heal completely within one to two weeks.

If the rash is severe, or if the skin becomes infected due to bacteria entering through broken skin, the healing process can take longer. In such cases, it may require medical treatment, including antibiotics, to resolve the infection and heal the rash.

With patience and consistent care, most surf rashes will clear up within a reasonable timeframe, allowing you to return to your surfing adventures with healthy, rash-free skin.

Surf rash vs. sun rash

While both conditions can coexist, particularly for surfers who spend long hours in the sun, there are some key differences:

  • Cause. Surf rash is caused by physical friction or abrasion, while sun rash is a reaction to UV radiation.
  • Location. Surf rash typically appears on areas that rub against surfing gear, while sun rash affects sun-exposed areas.
  • Appearance. Surf rash may have a raw, chafed look, while sun rash often presents as raised bumps or blisters.
  • Timing. Surf rash develops during or immediately after surfing, while sun rash may appear hours after sun exposure.

Proper diagnosis is important, as the treatment approaches may differ. Using broad-spectrum sunscreen and protective clothing can help prevent both surf rash (by reducing friction) and sun rash (by blocking UV rays).

Choose SwimZip

SwimZip cares about keeping your skin protected, whether you're riding the waves or lounging at the beach. Our sun-protective beach gear is crafted with UPF 50+ fabric that blocks 98% of harmful UVA and UVB rays. 

These garments are not only a practical safeguard but also come in different styles that cater to both comfort and fashion preferences. 

Check out some of our favorite collections:

Surf rash FAQ

Why do I get an itchy red rash after the beach?

You may get an itchy red rash after the beach due to

  • Sunburn/sun rash
  • Heat rash
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Allergy to sand, seaweed 
  • Seabather’s eruption
  • Swimmer’s itch

Are swim shirts good protection against surf rash?

Swim shirts or rash guards offer proper protection against surf rash. They create a barrier between your skin and the surfboard, minimizing friction and irritation. Look for swim shirts made from lightweight, stretchy fabrics designed to prevent chafing.

Is it okay to swim with surf rash?

It is not recommended to swim or surf with an existing surf rash. Exposing the rash to more saltwater and friction can worsen the condition, delay healing, and increase the risk of infection. Allow the rash to fully heal before returning to the water.

What is the difference between surf and heat rash?

Surf rash is caused by friction and abrasion from surfing equipment combined with saltwater exposure, while heat rash results from blocked sweat glands due to excessive sweating and heat. Heat rash, also known as prickly heat and miliaria, appears as red bumps, while surf rash is more raw and inflamed.

Is Vaseline a good protection against surf rash?

Vaseline can be an effective barrier against surf rash. Applied to exposed skin before surfing, it creates a slick surface that minimizes friction and prevents saltwater irritation. Some prefer plant-based balms as they're more environmentally friendly.

Does surf rash spread?

Surf rash typically doesn't spread in the sense of being contagious. If the irritation persists, the rash can worsen and cover a larger area of skin that's exposed to friction and saltwater. Proper treatment is essential to prevent it from worsening.

Is surf rash itchy?

Surf rash is often itchy, which can range from mild to severe. The itching sensation is caused by the inflammation and irritation of the skin due to the combination of friction, saltwater exposure, and potential exposure to sand or debris.

How tight should a rash guard be?

A rash guard should fit snugly but not be overly tight or restrictive. It should allow for a full range of motion while still creating a protective barrier against friction. Look for high-quality rash guard materials that won't bunch or chafe during water activities.

Further reading

Heat rash vs sun poisoning

Types of swimsuit tops

Best rash guards

Sun poisoning vs sunburn

Bathing suits for different body types

Best swimsuits

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