For as long as I can remember, bringing an umbrella to lay under at the beach was the responsible thing to do in order to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays and to avoid burning. In fact, as far as I was concerned, seeking shade under these colorful sunshades or slathering yourself with SPF without one were one in the same. But, according to a new study published in JAMA Dermatology, I—and probably thousands of others who thought that these umbrellas could provide adequate sun protection—have been wrong all along.
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The randomized clinical study looked at how well the typical shade from a beach umbrella protects against sunburn when compared to the protection offered by a sunscreen with a high SPF (the trial used SPF 100). The 81 participants from Texas were split up into two groups: Members of the umbrella group had their positioning monitored under the shade and adjusted as the sun’s angle changed throughout the day—the trial lasted from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.—in order to minimize any direct exposure of UV rays to evaluated areas (the face, upper chest, back of the neck, both arms and both legs), while those in the sunscreen group were instructed to reapply sunscreen every two hours (more often if they were sweating) with the knowledge that their sunscreen usage would be recorded at the end of the trial.
The results were shocking. During three and a half hours of sun exposure, 78 percent of participants under the umbrella with no SPF developed a sunburn while only 25 percent of participants who used the sunscreen without any shade had burned.
It is important to note, however, that neither of these approaches completely prevented a sunburn, which the study suggests may indicate that a combination approach—using a high SPF sunscreen while also ducking under an umbrella—may be needed for peak protection from these harmful rays, which is precisely what the Skin Cancer Foundation and the vast majority of dermatologists already advise. Montclair, NJ, dermatologist Jeanine B. Downie, MD, says that she only recommends beach umbrellas that are SPF 50 or above in terms of their protection. “In addition to an umbrella, a sunscreen of SPF 30 or above should also be applied to the skin and reapplied every two hours if you are in New York or surrounding states—every hour if you are in a state closer to the equator,” she says, adding that it is critical that we’re serious about doing both, not just one, because people don’t put on enough sunscreen and only one of these practices isn’t enough to stand on its own.