By: Patricia M. Delgado, DNP, APRN, DCNP
About 8 years ago, I went to the beach around 2:00 PM with a very good friend I had not seen in several years. Needless to say, we had a LOT to catch up on. I wore a comfortable two-piece bathing suit and brought my pop-up tent, because the Florida beach at 2:00 PM in the middle of May is just not a pleasant place to be without some shade. Comfortable under our shady tent and with sunscreen applied upon our arrival, we chatted for hours. The shade however, had been quite deceiving. Back then, I was not a board-certified dermatology nurse practitioner yet, so I was not fully aware of the nuances of sun protection, like the fact that UV rays can reach our skin from all directions.
Another fun fact I was not aware of at the time was that all shade is not created equally. Different types of canopies vary in their protectiveness owing to differences in materials, size, and variations in design. Your standard pop-up beach canopy may state that it is 99% UV protective, but unlike UV-protective clothing, shade like a beach tent or umbrella does not block all of the angles that damaging UV rays can reach the skin.
A common reason many people (including myself 8 years ago) forgo sun-protective clothing is because they forget about the presence of UV rays that reflect off of the sand and water. According to the World Health Organization, dry beach sand reflects about 15% of UV rays, and sea foam reflects about 25%. Still other UV rays are diffused by atmospheric particles. I bet you were not thinking about atmospheric particles when you were packing for your beach day.
People often assume that their skin is fully protected as long as they are either under the shade of an umbrella or slathered with sunscreen. Studies have been done that specifically evaluate the UV protectiveness of a beach umbrella and directly compare it with protection provided by sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF).
In one of these studies, participants were randomly assigned to 2 groups: 1 group of 41 participants was sent to the beach with only a beach umbrella, and the other group of 40 participants using only sunscreen with a SPF of 100. All participants remained at the sunny beach for 3½ hours at midday.
Clinical sunburn evaluation of each individual for all exposed body sites was conducted 22 to 24 hours after sun exposure. The results were impactful. There was a total of 142 sunburn incidences in the umbrella group and 17 in the sunscreen group. These results are a clear indication of the importance of having a multifaceted approach to sun protection and not getting too comfortable just because you have shade at the beach or slathered yourself in high-SPF sunscreen.
I don’t feel too guilty though about having put too much faith in my shady easy-up canopy, sunscreen and still ending up with a sunburn. While 25% of Americans frequently stay in the shade, only 16% regularly wear a hat, and 6% report frequently wearing long sleeves. Although I was not aware of it at the time, the literature has shown that barrier methods like clothing and shade are more effective than sunscreen alone in reducing exposure to solar UV radiation.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why even if you are under a pop-up tent, beach umbrella or sun shade covered in sunscreen, you should still protect yourself with a clothing barrier. Put on your Coolibar UPF 50+ sun-protective clothing, apply your sunscreen on any exposed areas, and don’t forget to re-apply every 2 hours (or sooner if you are sweating or after you go for a dip).
My story ends with me learning a valuable lesson: Protecting your skin from all angles at the beach is a must, regardless of whether or not you are sitting in the shade. Even if sunscreen annoys you or makes you feel sticky, protect yourself with UPF 50+ clothing. The best barrier to the sun is physical barrier on your skin.
Linos, E., Keiser, E., Fu, T., Colditz, G., Chen, S., & Tang, J. Y. (2011). Hat, shade, long sleeves, or sunscreen? Rethinking US sun protection messages based on their relative effectiveness. Cancer causes & control : CCC, 22(7), 1067–1071. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10552-011-9780-1
Ou-Yang, Jiang, L. I., Meyer, K., Wang, S. Q., Farberg, A. S., & Rigel, D. S. (2017). Sun Protection By Beach Umbrella Vs Sunscreen With A High Sun Protection Factor: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Dermatology., 153(3), 304–308. Https://Doi.Org/10.1001/Jamadermatol.2016.4922