Abstract The differential cross sections for 16O + 28Si elastic scattering at seven energies between 21 and 35 MeV in the centre of mass are described well over the whole angular range from 20° to 180° by an optical potential whose real part consists of a double-folded potential supplemented by a phenomenological model-independent correction term. This surface correction is predominantly attractive and has structure which depends only weakly on the energy. The associated imaginary potentials imply surface transparency and have detailed structure which varies rapidly with energy. However there is a systematic trend for the absorptive region to extend to larger radii as the energy increases. A simple parameterization of this trend allows the main features of the excitation function for 180° scattering to be reproduced.