When it comes to sun protection, you probably know that wearing sunscreen is a must. But if you've ever traveled during the summer, you've likely seen everyone from tourists to little old ladies carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. It may look both strange and sophisticated, but does carrying an umbrella really protect your skin from the sun?
It depends, says Jessica Wu, M.D., a Los Angeles-based dermatologist and author of Feed Your Face. Studies have shown that shading devices like umbrellas can block a portion of the sun's direct ultraviolet (UV) rays, as well as rays that are reflected from the sand and water. But the amount of protection provided depends on the umbrella's material and size (those clear, plastic umbrellas may be fashionable, but they'll do nothing to protect your skin). "Heavy, dark, opaque fabric blocks more UV rays than thin, sheer fabric, and the larger the umbrella, the more rays it can block," says Wu.
Indeed, a study by dermatologists at Emory University in Atlanta found that standard rain umbrellas can block at least 77 percent of UV light [Source: JAMA Dermatology]. Black ones did the job especially well, blocking about 90 percent of UV rays. But overall, sun umbrellas (those marketed specifically to block UV rays) offered the most protection, blocking more than 99 percent of UV rays.
Still, you shouldn't rely on an umbrella to provide all of the protection you need. "Since the shade from a parasol doesn't cover all of your body, it's still important to take other sun-protective measures like wearing a hat and sunscreen," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. His advice: Choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 30, which blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, the short waves that are responsible for most sunburns. And make sure the bottle is labeled as broad spectrum, so you know that it protects you against both UVB and UVA rays.
- McMichael, Josette R. JAMA Dermatology. "UV Radiation Protection by Handheld Umbrellas." (June 29, 2013). http://archderm.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1670412
- Wu, Jessica, M.D. Personal correspondence.
- Zeichner, Joshua, M.D. Personal correspondence.