What’s Better at the Beach: Sunscreen or an Umbrella?

Study shows shade is not enough protection from the sun
What's Better at the Beach: Sunscreen or an Umbrella?

If you’re heading to the beach for a spring vacation get-away, you might be tempted to seek shade under a beach umbrella and forego the sunscreen. But a new study says that shade from a beach umbrella provides less effective sun protection than a high-SPF sunscreen.

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The study, published online in the journal JAMA Dermatology,  says that staying in the shade is effective in reducing the amount of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays in general, but the magnitude of reduction may be less than many people believe.

The study looked at two groups of people with fair skin and exposed them to three and a half hours of sun. One group stayed under a sun protection factor (SPF) beach umbrella, while the other group wore sunscreen with an SPF of 100.

Researchers found that the group that was covered by the beach umbrella had significantly more sunburn than the group that wore sunscreen.

Researchers compared shade provided by a beach umbrella with protection from a high-SPF sunscreen as a benchmark since seeking shade and applying sunscreen are the two most popular sun protection measures while at a beach.

Sunscreen is best

Sunscreen is your best bet for protection from the sun’s damaging rays, says dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD. Dr. Kassouf did not take part in the study.

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If you’re wearing a bathing suit, you should apply about an ounce of sunscreen at a time — about as much as would fill a shot glass, Dr. Kassouf says. Be sure to reapply every two to three hours — and more frequently if you’re perspiring. Also be sure to reapply sunscreen after swimming.

It’s important to be sure you’re using the right kind of sunscreen, Dr. Kassouf says. A broad spectrum sunscreen is best as it protects against UVA and UVB rays, the two types of sun rays that cause damage to the body.

UVA and UVB rays play an important role in conditions such as premature skin aging, eye damage — including cataracts — and skin cancers. They also suppress the immune system.

“You want to make sure it’s broad spectrum, because that is the kind that protects against UVA as well as UVB rays,” Dr. Kassouf says. She also advises using an SPF of at least 30.

“Most people won’t apply as much as they do when they test these sunscreens,” she says. “So most people, I think, are lucky to get an SPF 15 out of a 30.”

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Extra caution

Dr. Kassouf says another solution that works well with sunscreen is SPF clothing, because it allows people more freedom of movement than being stuck underneath a beach umbrella.

“The nice part about the clothing, is it stays with you and it doesn’t matter the angle and you don’t have to re-apply,” said Dr. Kassouf. “You know there’s downsides to each of these different entities, so if you use them all together, they actually do help each other protect you better.”

If you’re heading off to somewhere warm and sunny from a cold-temperature climate for spring vacation, be aware that your skin has less built-in protection from not being exposed all winter long, Dr. Kassouf says. So it’s best to apply and re-apply sunscreen liberally to avoid getting burned when you reach your destination.

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