The Surfing Dermatologist

Bringing Sun Safety to the Shore


by James H. Beckett, MD

Surfing Dermatologist

I discovered dermatology the same way I discovered surfing — by accident. But I like to think those happy accidents have combined to give me a life of purpose and meaning. I’ve been both a dermatologist and a surfer for most of my adult life, and while my enthusiasms may seem contradictory, they’ve enabled me to educate many different people about skin cancer prevention and early detection.

First Came Surfing

I was introduced to surfing in the late 1950s. I grew up in California and had a friend who lived in a coastal community called Crystal Cove, near Laguna Beach. One day he took me out and pushed me into a wave. I’d seen surfing and was fascinated. And when I actually stood up and rode a board on a wave, it was exhilarating.

Then Came Dermatology

Then, in medical school, I discovered dermatology. As I neared the end of a rotating internship at UCLA-Harbor General Hospital in 1973, I realized that my knowledge of dermatology was limited. So I spent an elective month on the dermatology service and was immediately fascinated. In most medical disciplines, doctors use lab and imaging studies to make a diagnosis. Dermatologic diagnoses, however, chiefly require direct observation of the skin. Since so many disease processes involve the skin, dermatology presents immense intellectual challenges and intrigue.

Surfing + Sun Safety = A Volunteer Niche

As a medical student I did little surfing — I was either too busy or too far inland! Eventually, I moved to the coastal town of Santa Cruz, California. When my children were about 6 or 7, they saw an old surfboard in the rafters of our garage and asked if I could teach them to surf. We went to the beach, where I caught a wave and rode it all the way in. They were shocked and I’ve been surfing ever since.

My children also got me started as a sun safety volunteer. They had joined a local junior lifeguard summer program. While watching them on the beach one day, I realized that they were receiving substantial sun exposure and that their instructors weren’t emphasizing sun protection. I approached the head lifeguard and was invited to join the program teaching sun safety.

Over the years I’ve provided instruction to as many as 2,500 young people each summer. As the “surfing dermatologist,” I have credibility with the surfing and lifeguard communities and young people pay attention to my message. When addressing young people, I explain how unprotected sun exposure results in ultraviolet (UV) damage to the skin, which can cause pre- mature skin aging and cancer. To make my point, I often ask whether anyone would purposely allow their computer software to be damaged. The answer is invariably no. Then I ask why anyone would allow their software of life (that is, DNA) to be damaged by unprotected sun exposure. These questions always seem to grab their attention!

More Volunteer Work

In addition to my “surfing dermatologist” appearances, for 25 years I was a member of the volunteer clinical staff in the Department of Dermatology at Stanford University, teaching medical students and residents. I’m also involved with a local organization that raises funds for the education, prevention and support of cancer patients in our county. And for well over a decade, I’ve organized American Academy of Dermatology-sponsored skin cancer screenings at senior health fairs, surfing contests, and the local surf shop. I see a huge number of skin cancers that people don’t even know they have.

Besides allowing me to identify and refer precancerous and cancerous skin conditions for treatment, the screenings give me the chance to teach sun safety. These screenings have generated tremendous community support and appreciation, and I’ve found that volunteering is good for the soul, just as regular sun protection habits are good for the body.

Great Gear

The following items offer invaluable sun protection for surfers as well as swimmers:

• A neoprene (synthetic rubber) wetsuit in cold water, or UV-protective lycra garments in warm water

• A nylon or neoprene surfing cap that covers the top of the scalp and ears

• UV-protective, wraparound sunglasses

Sunscreen Tips for Surfers

I apply a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. The high SPF is important because the sun’s UV rays reflect off the water, adding to the intensity of exposure. Alcohol-based gel or spray formulas are a good bet, since they don’t run and irritate the eyes as often as cream- and lotion- based sunscreens do.

Wetsuit wearers should apply sunscreen to the nose, cheeks, hands, in and around the ears, and back of the neck. If you’re not wearing a surfing cap, don’t forget the scalp. Use a gel, liquid or spray to protect the part lines, cowlicks, and areas where hair is thinning.

And don’t skimp on the sunscreen: If you’re not wearing a wetsuit, use a full ounce (two tablespoons) to cover all exposed areas of your body.

Dr. Beckett is a practicing dermatologist and past Medical Director with the Santa Cruz Division of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Santa Cruz, CA.