Why Do Surfers Wear Wetsuits?

Why do surfers wear wetsuits?

Ever wondered why those gnarly surfers at the beach hit the waves clad in rubbery, skin-tight suits?

Well, wetsuits are the secret weapon of the surf world, transforming beach bums into aquatic superheroes.

Picture it: These guys and gals slip into a second skin, run to the water looking like a cross between a seal and a superhero, and proceed to shred the gnar.

For surfers, wetsuits are an essential part of their gear kit. They put on their wetsuits each day, ready to face the challenges of the cold ocean.

Some may think that wetsuits provide some sort of performance enhancement, but wetsuits do not help performance and may even make it worse.

And while it is actually harder to move inside a wetsuit, it plays a vital role for surfers. So, why do surfers wear a wetsuit, and is there a way you can surf without one?

Simply put, wetsuits are worn for two main reasons: protection and warmth. Since they are made of neoprene, a durable and insulating material, wetsuits keep surfers warm while also keeping them protected from elements, such as UV rays, sharp rocks, and corals.

These were just two of the many reasons why surfers choose to don a wetsuit. And to better understand why wetsuits are so important, let’s dive a bit deeper into the reasons behind wearing a wetsuit.

Wetsuits Keep Your Warmth

Warmth is the primary reason surfers wear wetsuits. If given the option, nearly all surfers would choose not to wear a wetsuit if they don’t need to.

Fun fact — water is incredibly efficient at lowering our body temperature and it’s even 25 times more effective at doing so than air like a cold breeze.

This means that any water temperature below our normal core temperature of 97.7-98.6°F (36.5-37°C) will cause us to rapidly become colder.

Without a wetsuit, it’s likely that you’ll start shivering after only an hour or less in the water. Even in warm tropical waters of 86°F (30°C), chill wind may cause you to feel cold.

However, in colder waters, the risk of hypothermia increases without a wetsuit.

But how does wearing a wetsuit prevent cases like hypothermia? Well, wetsuits are made from neoprene foam that contains thousands of small nitrogen air bubbles.

This combination of neoprene and air bubbles allows the wetsuit to trap the surfer’s body heat while preventing cold water from seeping in.

The tight fit of the wetsuit allows for a thin layer of water to enter, which can easily be warmed by the body and does not greatly affect the surfer’s core temperature.

This is why, as funny as it sounds, peeing inside the wetsuit is a good idea. Since that thin layer of water enters your wetsuit and gets warmed by your body temperature, your pee is warmer and can act as that thin water layer.

Once you’re surfing in cold water without a wetsuit, it can quickly drain your strength and energy, and even if you won’t have hypothermia, it may lead to an unpleasant feeling.

On the other hand, if you’re in a warm tropical environment with water temperatures above 75ºF (24ºC), a wetsuit is likely not necessary and may actually make you feel overheated.

In addition, when water temperatures drop to around 62-68ºF (16-20ºC), it’s very recommended to wear a full-body wetsuit.

The thickness of the wetsuit affects its warmth, with thicker wetsuits providing more insulation.

Choosing the right type and thickness of a wetsuit is a topic by itself, so be sure to check out our recent article on what surfing gear surfers need for more information.

In any case, when putting on a wetsuit, make sure it fits snugly. It should be tight and hard to wear (not too hard though), otherwise cold water will seep in and that defeats the purpose of wearing a wetsuit at all.

Wetsuits Grant You Extra Protection

A wetsuit might not be body armor, but it serves as a sturdy second layer of skin that keeps surfers warm and protected.

In addition to keeping you warm, it can also guard against cuts and abrasions from rocky ocean bottoms or coral reefs.

Think of it as adding an extra layer of shield to your skin to avoid being scraped up by the ocean’s cheese-grater-like floor.

While it a wetsuit protects you from cuts and scrapes, wetsuits also offer some protection from aggressive sea creatures.

If you come across jellyfish, sea lice, or bluebottles, the neoprene material in a wetsuit can protect you from their stings or bites.

However, your hands, feet, and head remain exposed, so avoid entering areas with high numbers of jellyfish in any case.

Another protection factor is that a wetsuit serves as a shield that reduces the chances of skin injuries in the event of a wipeout on rocky or reefy waves.

I’ve seen surfers that had their wetsuits tear on rocks during wipeouts, but their skin was protected.

Wetsuits Provide UV Rays Protection

The largest risk, literally the largest, is that yellow thing up there. Sunlight’s UV rays are reflected from the water’s surface and can be incredibly destructive to your skin.

Thankfully, wetsuits are designed to protect you by absorbing most of these UV rays so they never touch your skin.

However, a wetsuit does not provide full protection as they are not cover every inch of your body, which is why it is important that you apply surf zinc on any area still exposed for maximum protection against the sun.

You also might have noticed that most wetsuits are black, and this is not a coincidence. That’s because the neoprene has been infused with carbon black — not only does this add strength to the material, but it also helps protect you from UV rays.

By absorbing the ultraviolet light instead of allowing it to pass through, your wetsuit effectively shields your skin from burning.

Wetsuits Decrease The Chances of Board Rash

Surfing shirtless may be tempting, especially in the summer, but it can also lead to board rashes.

If you’re out surfing on foam or fiberglass boards without a wetsuit, your chest and ribs can easily become irritated due to friction.

To keep your skin safe from harm, make sure you wear an appropriate rashie or wetsuit when hitting the waves.

Not only will this keep you comfortable while surfing, but it’ll help protect you against any potential bumps, bruises, or scrapes.

Of course, don’t forget that wearing a wetsuit by itself can also cause chafing and other types of rashes.

If you find yourself getting rashes from your wetsuit, there are a couple of solutions. The first is to wear a rashie underneath to provide an extra layer of protection.

The second is to apply petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) to the areas of your skin that are rubbing against the wetsuit and causing irritation.

This should help to keep your skin feeling comfortable and rashie-free (see what we did here?).

Wetsuits Are More Buoyant Than Our Bodies

Wetsuits are great for keeping you warm and protected, but they also have a surprising benefit — they help you stay afloat.

While not the primary reason why surfers choose to wear wetsuits, it does bring some additional advantages with it.

This is because the neoprene material traps air bubbles which gives the wetsuit buoyancy. Plus, salt water is naturally more buoyant than freshwater, so when combined with your wetsuit you can easily stay afloat with minimal effort.

This is very helpful when you’ve wiped out or find yourself facing a large set as it allows you to conserve energy and stay safe.

The thickness of the wetsuit determines the amount of buoyancy it provides, with a thicker wetsuit having more air bubbles and therefore more buoyancy.

However, even a 3mm can make you extremely buoyant, so don’t worry about it when choosing a wetsuit.

Wetsuits Can Boost Mental State

Yes, you heard right. Research in the field of behavioral psychology has suggested that just dressing like a surfer and looking like a surfer may in fact improve surfing performance — even if no practical experience is present.

While this may be difficult to accept, the evidence appears to point in this direction.

Beyond surfing, this phenomenon of improved performance is actually thanks to the fact that wetsuits are some sort of a surfer uniform, which is applicable to many others areas of life.

The adage that what we wear impacts how we feel and how others perceive us — holds true.

Wearing a wetsuit can have the effect of making one feel like a pro, whilst eliciting similar impressions from those around them, creating a reinforcing cycle of positive self-perception. As they say: “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”.

Although there are clearly limits as to how much of a performance boost wearing a wetsuit will bring, it should not be disregarded.

For surfers, donning the proper attire can create the illusion of expertise and impart a feeling of confidence and protection that may result in better performance.

On the flip side, if one’s security is undermined by not feeling protected enough, then their performance could suffer due to negative psychological implications.

It means that wearing the right clothing can truly have an effect on both skill level and mental state.

Do You Have to Wear a Wetsuit to Surf?

The simple answer is no, you don’t have to wear a wetsuit when surfing, and actually wearing one can make paddling and movement more difficult.

Wetsuits are merely worn to keep surfers warm when the water is chilly, but if it’s sufficiently warm enough, normal swimming clothing like boardshorts and a bathing suit are also suitable for surfing.

When the water is cold, you will need to wear a wetsuit when surfing, and that would be the primary reason to wear a wetsuit in most cases.

Final Thoughts

There are more questions to answer in this regard I’m certain, but I hope it helped with your decision whether to wear a wetsuit or not.

Remember that you wearing a wetsuit is best when it’s cold but can also provide you with extra protection in many different cases.