Any cold-water surfers travelling to warmer climates will need to be ready for one of surfing’s most painful and annoying ailments.
Surfers’ nipple, often referred to as nipple chafing, occurs when a surfer paddles for a prolonged period of time on a surfboard without a considerable layer of protection between their chest and the deck of the surfboard.
This can lead to sore sensitive nipples that make your next surf a very uncomfortable experience. Let’s take a closer look at what surfers’ nipple is and some of the ways you can prevent it from happening.
What is surfer’s nipple?
Surfer’s nipple is a specific kind of surf rash that affects the nipples. You can get surf rash in a number of locations primarily the neck, groin and back of the knees but the sensitivity of your nipples make this a whole new kind of pain.
Indicators of surfer’s nipple include:
- Red irritated nipples
- Rough, scabbed skin around and on your nipples after surfing
- Severe cases may actually break the skin and cause bleeding in the nipple tissue
In mild cases, you’ll experience discomfort while paddling and it may distract you from catching waves.
In severe cases of surfer’s nipple, the friction can actually break the nipple’s skin and cause nasty cuts that need further medical treatment.
What causes surfers’ nipple
Surfer’s nipple is caused by friction and rubbing between your nipple and another surface like wax, traction pads or a t-shirt. It’s fairly minor compared to other more serious pain caused by surfing but it definitely stings.
It’s important to note that surfers who are used to surfing with a wetsuit will suffer more severely from nipple rash. Your nipples just like other skin on your body will become resistant to rubbing and rash over time so persistence is key, even if it is painful.
Some of the most common suspects for nipple rash include:
Traction pads are a great way to save on wax and avoid wax melting in your car but the raised areas that act as grip can really aggravate your skin as you paddle out for your surf.
An excessive wax covering on the deck of your surfboard can lead to some serious waxy bumps. Fresh wax jobs tend to be nicer on the nipples so keep your wax to a minimum.
Sand embedded in your wax job
If you surf beach breaks a lot you’ll likely have experienced sand in your wax. As waves draw off the ocean floor and head towards shallower water they’ll pick up some of the sand lying below.
This sand mixes with the water to create a brownish liquid packed full of granules of sand. As you surf, granules will get ground into your wax as you paddle.
This turns your wax job into sandpaper in no time, rashing your nipples, chest and thighs. Unfortunately, the only way to avoid this is to remove your wax and start again. Check out our short read on other uses for surf wax for ways to reuse and recycle your old wax.
Believe it or not, wearing a t-shirt can actually make your nipple rash worse. When your skin gets wet it softens and even the material of a t-shirt can be abrasive and cause discomfort.
Foamies & soft tops
Foamies and soft top surfboards are great for beginners and make surfing much safer and arguably more fun. But the deck of foam boards is very different from shiny smooth fibreglass PU surfboards.
Foam surfboards have tiny little holes and depressions in the rubber material that make the deck of the board abrasive. This is great for learning to surf because your feet will naturally grip the board’s surface even without wax.
Your nipples, on the other hand, will not benefit from a grippy abrasive surface and foam and soft top surfboards can bring an early end to many surf sessions due to surfer’s nipple.
Treatment for surfers’ nipple
If you’re reading this and it’s already too late, never fear. There is a range of suitable treatments for surfer’s nipple that will provide the quick relief you want.
If your surfer’s nipple isn’t very severe you can use some moisturizer to soothe the nipple area. Try to use moisturizers with natural ingredients to avoid any stinging.
There are several creams for sore rashed skins available at your local pharmacy. If you are unsure ask a member of staff for advice and they should be able to recommend an appropriate brand and product to treat your surfer’s nipple.
My personal favourite because it cost very little and it’s 100% natural.
If you have an Aloe Vera plant simply snip the end of one leaf and squeeze some of the gel onto your sore nipples. It may sting a little to start but Aloe Vera’s soothing and healing properties will alleviate the pain and speed up healing.
If you can’t get your hand’s on a real Aloe plant then you can use an Aloe Vera gel that is readily available in most stores.
How to prevent surfer’s nipple
Taking away the barrier between board and nipple (your wetsuit) can be a liberating experience and you can avoid the pain of surfer’s nipple with our simple prevention steps.
It may look a little strange while you vigorously spread Vaseline across your nipples pre-surf but the benefits are worth it. Layering your nipples with Vaseline puts a layer of lubricant between your nipple and your board or t-shirt.
This layer will stop the abrasion you experience and while it can feel a little strange, it’s much better than the pain you experience without.
Waterproof bandages across your nipples are an interesting look but those little bits of fabric act as perfect protection for your nipples. I just grab the fairly cheap Band-Aid ones on Amazon.
Secure your bandages and then gently pull and zip up your wetsuit to help hold them in place. Just a heads up but it may hurt a little ripping them off afterwards, especially if you are sporting some nipple hair.
Rash vests are arguably a bit eighties, but they do actually help with surfer’s nipple. Unlike t-shirts, rash vests are made out of a material that even when wet still provides a smooth slippery surface that won’t damage your skin.
Avoid really cheap rash suits because they rarely do the job, I personally use this one, but any good rashie will do.
When it comes to surfers nipple prevention is always better than treatment and with our simple steps, you should be able to avoid the pain of surfer’s nipple altogether.
Check out our other short reads below for more expert advice and tips on how to surf better, smarter and happier.