Skin care at sea

5th Dec, 2016

All At Sea, 1st Dec. 2016

Last year Lizzy Foreman took part in the Mini Transat and hopes to race in the Vendee Globe one day. In this series the experienced racer takes us on a journey through the lives of racing sailors looking at the challenge these men and women face. This month Lizzy looks at caring for your skin whist at sea.

Dermatologic care should be a consideration for any sailor heading offshore whether it is for five days or five months. Several skin conditions can arise through a lack of skin protection, inadequate hygiene and intense weather conditions:

  • Xerosis – dry skin
  • Hyperkeratosis – calluses and corns on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet due to pressure and rubbing
  • Tinea pedis (Athlete's Foot) – fungal growth between the toes and on the sole of the foot
  • Dyshidrosis – blistering on the hands and feet
  • Folliculitis – inflammation of the hair follicles; rash on the neck, wrists and bottom
  • Thermal burns – often by cooking equipment and sunburn

During the 2008 – 2009 Volvo Ocean race, 67 incidents of skin infections and sores were recorded, while a further 54 cases were of the dreaded 'gunwale bum', a rash on your bottom caused by spending too much time in wet foul weather gear and sitting on a wet deck.

Similarity, 83 per cent of the 2012 AG2R skippers had a skin condition even before they set off for the transatlantic race from France to the West Indies. By the end of the 22 day race, 95 per cent of the skippers were suffering from fungal infections, burns, hyperkeraosis and xerosis.

Damaged race hands. Image: Volvo Ocean Race


So how can a sailor combat the heat, cold, humidity and constant contact with salt water?

Barrier creams are the best primary defence. Sudocream is particularly good for preventing the dreaded folliculitis or gunwale bum (in combination with a considerable amount of talcum powder), while Exomega made by A-Derma can be used on both the face and hands. I used this everyday throughout the Transat along with a couple of pairs of Sealskin Dragon Eye gloves, which dramatically reduced skin scaling.

Hand scaling during the 2012 AG2R


Bathing and changing clothes is another defence, yet 86 per cent of skippers during the AG2R reported not bathing daily, nor changing clothes for at least five days at a time. Although it can be difficult to take a 'bird bath' during rough conditions, a squeezy bottle filled with fresh water is an excellent way to rinse salt water off the face, neck and wrists.

Simple cleansers that do not require rinsing, such as Eau Thermale Avenue, are also very good, and preferable to wet wipes which tend to dry out the skin. Wet wipes are also useless if they fall in the bilge water or dry out themselves during the race.


The daily application of athlete's foot powder or talcum powder along with a fresh pair of socks every three days prevents tinea pedis. I had three pairs of SealSkinz's waterproof socks which I wore on rotation throughout the Transat, along with a pair of Lizard boots, both proving to have excellent waterproofing.

On top of these preventative measures, numerous medical creams can be taken onboard. I had to carry seven specifically for treating skin conditions during the Transat race. Flammazine is a particularly effective cream which can be used for burns, blisters and grazes. As a last resort for particularly nasty skin infections, antibiotics can be taken.

Finally, sunscreen is an absolute must during offshore sailing. Even in overcast conditions it can help to prevent the face from drying out with the force of the wind.

My favourite product is Heliocare's SPF50 Spray or Oil Free gel. With a non-greasy feel, it does not run into your eyes and is particularly effective thanks to the addition of Fernblock, an extract from Polypodium Leucotomos (a fern originating from Central America). Applying after-sun at night-time can also help the skin to recover.

There is very little protection from the sun's rays on racing boats – a bimini would have been a very luxurious item to have onboard my Mini while racing to Guadeloupe!

No showers onboard: dreadlocks at the end of my first major offshore race (2,400 nm).

Image: Christophe Breschi

Reference: Skin diseases affecting high-level sailors- descriptive study carried out during the 2012 AG2R Transatlantic race. Lodée et al.