Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dive Skin to Protect Your Skin and the Reef

Don't let a sunburn cause you to lose a day of your vacation.
Don't let being cold drive you out of the ocean.

Before we arrived in Hawaii, I purchased a new dive skin, which is the Lycra equivalent of a wetsuit.  Skins are thinner, cooler, easier to get into, have more stretch, and more comfortable than wetsuits.  A dive skin is a one-piece bodysuit made of very stretchy Lycra material.

I hate to sunburn. The day I saw an ad for reef-safe sunscreen, I thought, "Oh no! Is the sunscreen I rely upon bad for the reef I love?" I started doing research. The safest sunscreen for humans and for the reef is clothing.  So now I wear a dive skin while snorkeling and avoid the chemical sunscreen. The dive skin has paid for itself many times over in what I've saved on sunscreen.  After snorkeling for two months in Hawaii with this dive skin and no sunburn, I ordered three more in different sizes.  I bought one each for my aunt, son, and daughter-in-love to use when they visited.  So now I have four skins in four sizes.

The wrists of my dive skin are too tight for me.  It is easier to get into this suit than out of it. I can do it by myself, but it is difficult, so my husband usually helps me take off the suit by pulling one shoulder of the suit past my elbow.  I think if the dive skin had a longer zipper, then it would be easier.

The dive skin has elastic thumb loops on the sleeves and straps that go under your feet, so that one can easily put a wetsuit over it.

The water is warm in Hawaii and most people swim without a skin.  Still there are places where underground fresh water streams or springs enter the ocean where it is surprisingly chilly.  This dive skin helps me swim as long as I want without getting cold.  Occasionally I wear a Thermoprene 3mm dive vest with a front zipper, but my dive skin and vest are enough most of the time.  

We are currently on the on the Big Island of Hawaii, and occasionally we're getting into and out of the ocean over scratchy sharp lava. This suit has definitely saved me some scratches climbing out of the water when the waves have pushed me unexpectedly onto the lava, and the suit still looks new.

There have been locations where I've noticed tiny larval jellyfish, but I haven't been bothered by them which might be attributed to the dive skin.

Do I look strange wearing a skin in Hawaii when there are a lot of bikinis around?  Well, my dance tights and swim shirt were peacock blue and red and my fins were yellow when I was in Cayman, so I looked like a parrot fish.  I didn't mind, because it let me stay in the water longer.  I questioned the intelligence of looking like a large parrot fish the day I discovered that sharks really enjoy eating parrot fish.  My black dive skin looks more like the wetsuits the divers around me are wearing, so actually I stand out less than before.  Now I look more like a seal or a penguin, which sharks also find tasty. 

Fit:  I've noticed that some people on the beach are wearing their swim shirt sized like they would wear a T-shirt, but that is wrong.  To keep one warm and to make swimming easier the shirt needs to lie close to the skin.  It should be comfortable yet fit snugly enough to act like an extra skin.  It keeps you warmer, because your body heats the thin layer of water next to your skin.  A loose shirt or shorts still provides sun protection but allows that warm water layer to escape; it causes drag when swimming, and is more likely to get snagged on something.  Make sure what you're wearing fits snugly.

Color:  I've heard that white offers the most sun protection, because white reflects the light rather than absorbing it.  I wear a basic black suit with color accents.  It looks more unisex in case I want to let someone borrow it.  There are some wonderfully colored and patterned suits created for women but they are more expensive.  If you're worried about being mistaken for a seal or a parrot fish, then the color that would make the most sense would be light gray on the front and medium gray on the back the way a dolphin is colored, but I've never found those.  If you're worried about getting lost or making it easier for your snorkel partner to find you if you get separated, neon yellow is the easiest color to see when you're in the water.

Care:  Rinse your dive skin in fresh water after wearing (or when you get back to where you are staying) and hang it out of the sun to dry.  Periodically wash it and again and hang it out of the sun to dry.  Occasionally I've forgotten and left mine in the back of the van.  It is unpleasant putting on a cold damp suit and one risks mildew.  You have to rinse the salt water out as it is corrosive to the zipper and you'll end up with a dive skin you can't zip.

Depending on the color, the sizes range for extra small to triple "x," and because of the stretch they can be worm by men or woman.

Cost:  On Amazon they are anywhere from $33 and up.   

Alternatives to a dive skin for snorkeling:

  1. I used to wear thick-Lycra dance leggings and a long-sleeved swim shirt. They were definitely easier to get into and out of, but occasionally when I snorkeled, the shirt would ride up and I'd get a strange burn across my back, so I prefer the one-piece dive skin.  Other benefits of a full skin over my swim shirt is that I can unzip its front zipper if I get too warm, and its collar covers more of the back of the neck, so my neck doesn't get burned while I snorkel.   Major benefit of the two piece leggings and swim shirt over the one piece dive skin is it is much easier to go to the restroom.
  2. Sunscreen is not a good alternative for you or the reef.  The first time I snorkeled years ago, I slathered on the sunscreen, reapplied often, but still burned the back side of my upper thighs making it extremely painful to sit down.  I could not go back to the beach the next day because of the burn, so we went for a drive instead.  Both were painful mistake.  
  3. One day I realized I'd left my dive skin at the house where I'd hung it to dry.  I had a long-sleeved swim shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts in the van.  They kept me from burning.  A pair of Lycra bike shorts would have been a better choice because they would have been much easier to swim in and would have been warmer.  You may already own a Lycra swim shirt and bike shorts, exercise leggings, or dance wear; or you may have more use for them afterwards.  They are available almost everywhere.  Just take extra care to make sure you aren't accidentally exposing your back.
  4. Rash guard and shorts.  There are some wonderful rash guards in wonderful patterns and colors as they were originally created for surfers.  You may have better luck getting kids into these as they look cool.  It easier if you have to take them to the restroom.  They do seem to be more expensive.  And the shirts can also ride up and expose the back to the sun.
  5. A wetsuit (full or shorty) will also keep the sun off and protect against nicks and tiny jellyfish.  It is warmer and increases your buoyancy.  But it cost more, takes more effort and time to put on and take off.  I started wearing one starting in February.  A shorty wetsuit is easier to get into and out of than a full wetsuit.  I'd recommend a shorty or at least a wetsuit vest for children, because most have very little body fat and chill easily, so they could use the extra warmth and buoyancy that wetsuits offer. Most children and many adults don't have the patience to put on a full wetsuit, so use dive skins avoid that.