What Surfers Really Need to Know About Sun Damage and Skin Cancer


Skin cancer and sun damage are somewhat taboo topics among surfers. Unfortunately, a lot of us do not want to admit that our passion, our lifestyle, our obsession – can come at a deadly price. It seems to be that the stereotypical surfer girl is portrayed as a tanned goddess, sliding gracefully among waves, her hair blonde, skin dark from hours in the sun. But is this really healthy? Is this in fact safe? It may be easy to think so in your 20’s, but coming into your 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and beyond, another story unfolds…

Sun damage and skin cancer… give me a quick explanation

There are three types of skin cancer. Melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. Generally speaking, melanoma is the most aggressive type of skin cancer, the type that will spread and is known to be fatal to those it lays its hands on. Skin cancer in a nut shell is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. It occurs when un repaired DNA damage to skin cells triggers mutations, or genetic defects, that leads the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumours. Damage from the sun will trigger skin cancer, and will also destroy the health of your skin, leaving it lifeless, saggy and irreparable.

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Why surfers are at risk

Anyone that spends time in the sun is at risk of developing melanoma and suffering sun damage. The thing with surfing is that we are having so much fun in the ocean that we often forget how long we are actually in the sun for. Often out at sea the wind is blowing, creating a false sense of temperature. It is easy to think that because the breeze and the water is cooling us down, that we are not sizzling like those sunbathers on the beach.  The reality is we are sizzling, in fact even more so than those on the beach.

Being in the water, the sun is not only shining down and burning our heads, backs, and shoulders, but it also reflects off the water surface back onto the front of our body, in particular burning our necks, chests and our faces. We seem to be getting hit with a double edged sword here. Meaning that we simply cannot afford to be blasé about the harsh realities of sun damage.

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Some typical myths debunked

My dark tan is “healthy” is not really going to cut it. Sun damage is sun damage. There is not much of a way around this one.

Im not pasty…so I won’t get burnt! Im sorry again. Though pale people are more likely to get burnt, your darker or olive skin does not make you a super human cancer fighting ninja. You are still most definitely at risk.

It isn’t sunny, I don’t need sun protection today. Um…Wrong. Especially is countries like Australia and New Zealand. Those rays will burn right through the clouds, and turn you into a tomato face in no time at all.

It will be obvious if I get skin cancer. I will just see it or feel it and then get it cut out. No. It is important to be thorough with your skin checks. Just because you can’t feel or see that skin cancer on your back does not mean it isn’t there.

Sun block is full of dodgy chemicals, therefor I shouldn’t wear it. Well wrong again. Though some sun protection cremes and lotions use a variety of chemicals, putting these onto your skin will still be safer than sun damage. In fact these days there are a lot of natural and organic options out there. Put your detective hat on and start finding them.

What to look out for

You can follow the ABCD guide for detecting melanoma.

A – Asymmetry. Look for spots that lack symmetry that have jaggard edges that do not match up.

B – Border. Look for spots that spread and lacks a solid border.

C – Colour. Look for spots that have numerous colours within them such as black, blue or grey.

D – Diameter. Look for spots that are growing in diameter.

It is also important to notice new moles, moles that increase in size, and moles that begin to raise higher than usual. Watch out for moles that develop lumps within them. They may itch or bleed.

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So what is the best way to actually protect yourself against skin cancer and sun damage?

The best way to protect yourself is to wear sun block and zinc, wear hats that shade your face, and sunglasses that protect your eyes (eyes get damaged from the sun too!) If you are surfing for hours on end it is important to wear protective surf attire so that you don’t have to compromise your health, or your session.

These days there are numerous companies that specialise in protective surf wear for women. Not only do many of them have sun safety as their top priority, but a lot of them are designed to look both stylish and graceful. Take Salt Gypsy for example – designed by an ocean dweller, with minimal branding, handcrafted and boasting a variety of different cuts and styles, there should be no excuse as to why you cannot keep yourself protected. Lack of style really is not an excuse anymore!

Wherever you are in the world, there should be clinics and facilities that offer skin cancer testing. I would highly encourage you to open a new tab right now, and find the closest one to you. Be proactive, before it is too late.

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