Does Surfing Make Your Eyes Red? (Important Facts)

Does Surfing Make Your Eyes Red

Have you ever noticed how sometimes after spending some time in the ocean your eyes seem to be red?

Surfing can cause red eyes. This is a combination of the saltwater and the bright reflection of the sun off the ocean surface.

Known to surfers as surfer’s eye, and to medical professionals as pterygium, the most common reason for red eyes after surfing is a growth of pink tissue on the conjunctiva of the eye.

Below we will take a look at how surfing can cause red eyes, the effects of surfer’s eye, and what you can do about it.

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links (clearly marked with ), which means we may earn a commission if you buy something through them, at no additional cost to you.

Why Can Surfing Lead to Red Eyes?

Surfing creates a perfect condition for your eyes to become irritated and inflamed. 

A mixture of saltwater, which dries out the eyes, and the intense glare from the sun’s reflection on the water lead to damage and scarring of the conjunctiva (white part of the eye).

Surfer’s Eye

As the damage happens more and more often, the eyes lose their ability to repair themselves and start to develop a layer of scarred tissue.

The reason surfer’s eye is also called pterygium is because the red scarred tissue looks somewhat like a wing.

It is this scar tissue that appears red and does not go away, and in severe cases can move over the pupil and need to be surgically removed.

Red Eyes From Salt Water

As an alternative, surfing does not necessarily lead to surfer’s eye, but can still cause red and inflamed eyeballs.

Saltwater dries out the eyes which cause blood vessels to expand. It is common for this to go away after a freshwater rinse and a few hours.

Red Eyes From Bacteria

The final way that is likely to cause red eyes from surfing is due to bacteria in the water and infection.

Many coastlines are breeding grounds for bacteria due to the sewage and rainwater runoff that is channeled into the ocean. 

Opening your eyes in bacteria filled water can irritate them and lead to infections such as pink eye.

Are Red Eyes the Same Like Surfer’s Eyes?

All surfer’s eyes are red eyes, but not all red eyes are surfer’s eyes.

As mentioned above, there are multiple reasons why your eyes might be red after a surf, and not all of them are because of pterygium.

So how do you know if you have surfer’s eyes or another red-eye condition?

Symptoms of Surfer’s Eye

If you are suffering from surfer’s eye, your eyes may:

  • Burn
  • Feel itchy
  • Feel gritty as though there is dust or sand stuck in them
  • Look red

Surfer’s eye usually starts from the pink area closest to the nose and slowly spreads towards the pupil.

If you find that you have red eyes after surfing and the redness does not go away (usually in a small wing-shaped area between the nose and pupil) then it is likely that you have surfer’s eye.

If the inflammation and redness in your eyes disappear after a few hours or days, then there is no scar tissue and it is likely that your eyes were just irritated by something in the water.

If you’re in doubt, you should always seek professional medical advice.

Is It Normal to Get Red Eyes After Surfing?

It is very common for surfers to emerge from the ocean with red eyes.

However, it is more common in certain situations than in others.

Red eyes are more common among older surfers, as they have had more years of UV exposure.

Similarly, if you have spent a long time in the water with high UV levels, then red eyes are likely to occur.

As mentioned before, some beaches are known for their unclean water, which is very likely to lead to infections in the eyes, as well as cause other health problems.

That being said, red eyes after surfing are not “normal” and are an indication that your eyes are irritated.

However, they are a fairly common occurrence.

Should I Be Worried About Getting Red Eyes From Surfing?

Red eyes, although an indication that something is wrong, is not a major health concern. 

In most cases, the swelling and inflammation will disappear within a few hours of being out of the water.

Similarly, with surfer’s eye, the condition does not pose an immediate health risk, although continued long-term exposure to UV light can cause the scarring tissue to spread over the pupil which will lead to blurry vision, and many need to be surgically removed.

Are There Any Long Term Effects of Surfer’s Eyes?

Surfer’s eye usually looks worse than it is, and just like other scar tissue around the body, with the proper treatment can subside.

As for the long-term effects of surfer’s eye, the biggest – and really only threat – is that thorough time and continuous stress due to UV light, dryness, and dust, the scarring can spread towards and sometimes over the pupil, which could impair vision.

If a severe case of surfer’s eye is not treated, blindness could occur.

In cases where the eye is extremely dry and itchy, the irritation can cause day to day problems as if there is a constant burn in your eyes.

This, however, can be solved through eye drops and other ointments.

It is important to see an eye doctor if you feel that your surfer’s eye is growing and spreading too far.

What Can I Do About My Red Eyes After Surfing?

If you have come back from a surf and your eyes are red, there are a few things you can do to help them heal and reduce the inflammation.

1. Rinse your eyes with fresh water

When you get out of the ocean it is a good idea to immediately rinse your eyes with fresh mineral water.

Mineral water is good for the eyes as it helps rehydrate them from the salt exposure.

Avoid using tap water as it is usually high in chlorine which will further dry them out. 

Rinsing your eyes will also help remove any bacteria that is irritating them.

2. Use Eye Drops

Using non-salt based eye drops will help kill off bacteria and re-hydrate your eyes, thus making it less likely that your eyes will scar.

3. Avoid Swimming Pools

As mentioned above, the chlorine will further dry out your eyes.

It is common for people who spend a lot of time in swimming pools to get surfer’s eye as the conditions of UV reflection and dryness are similar to that of surfing.

4. Avoid Further Sun Exposure

If your eyes are red, it is an indication that they are under stress.

It is important to avoid further sun exposure until they are healed. 

It may be helpful to think of surfer’s eye as sunburn on our eyeballs.

As you would avoid the sun when you have sunburn on your skin, so should you with your eyes.

5. Avoid Bright White Light

The white lights that we use to light our homes are stressful on the eyes and will slow down the healing process if your eye is inflamed. 

If possible, keep the lights off, or alliteratively use warm yellow lights in your home until your eyes are healed.

This is also true when looking at a TV, computer, or cellphone screen.

The blue light that is emitted from these devices is bad for our eyes at the best of times and will slow down any healing that is needed.

6. Keep Your Eyes Closed

In severe cases, if your eyes are burning and sore, it is a good idea to keep your eyes closed.

Take a nap if possible or stay in a dark room. 

Your eyes heal fastest when they are closed as it allows your body time to re-hydrate them.

How Can I Protect My Eyes When Surfing?

When it comes to protecting your eyes while surfing, there is really only one option. Wear sunglasses.

There are a number of surfing sunglasses that are suited for surfing, kite-surfing, windsurfing, and other water sports.

These glasses should always be polarized with 100% UV protection, and come with a strap in order to secure them on your head.

Keep in mind that even if it is overcast, you still need to wear sunglasses.

UV rays are not blocked by most clouds, and as it is less bright on a cloudy day, we tend to open our eyes wider, which allows for more UV light to hit our eyes and cause damage.

Wearing a surfing hat will protect your skin from the sun, but will not protect your eyes as it is the reflection from the water that does the damage and not from looking at the sun.


Surfing can lead to red eyes. It is common for saltwater to dry out your eyes, and bacteria to cause infections.

However, surfer’s eyes are the most common cause for red eyes with surfers.

Surfer’s eye is not a high-risk condition and in most cases will go away with the correct treatment.

However, left untreated with continuous exposure to stressful situations, the scarring in your eyes can spread towards the pupil, which could lead to impairment of vision.

If your eyes are red after a surf, it is not a reason to be alarmed.

However, it is important to pay attention to the redness and observe whether it is going away or becoming worse.

It is always best to protect your eyes with sunglasses at all times, which includes surfing.

You Might Also Like…