With school out and summer officially here, the Jersey Shore is alive and thriving again. Whether you’re headed down for the day, a week, or even the entire summer, don’t forget to pack a beach umbrella. But also, make sure it’s not the only sun protection you’re bringing.
On the brightest days at the beach, the sight of large umbrellas and cabanas has become increasingly common. They can provide relief from the relentless heat and the sun’s damaging UV rays. Or so we thought. A study funded by Johnson & Johnson and published in the journal Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences found that the only thing beach umbrellas are providing is a false sense of security.
This was the first systematic study to examine how much shade from items like umbrellas actually give you. Researchers looked at how much SPF protection a big beach umbrella provides those relaxing within its shade. What they discovered is shocking. The average beach umbrella provides SPF 7 – at best. And it could be as little as SPF 3. For context, the American Academy of Dermatology says you need at least SPF 30 for sufficient protection from the sun’s cancer-causing UV rays.
Even more, an umbrella won’t protect you at all from the UV light that’s reflected from the sand.
Then why do I feel cooler under my umbrella (or cabana)? you may be asking. It turns out that shade doesn’t necessarily equate to protection from the sun.
“Humans in the shade can see when visible light is reduced, and we can feel cooler when infrared light is reduced, but we can’t sense the UV light – that is, until we wake up with a terrible sunburn the next day,” Hao Ou-Yang, the study’s lead author, said.
That finding alone is revelatory. Until this study, no one could say with any certainty whether shade was any safer or not. Common sense said that because it’s cooler and darker it is. But we now know that assumption’s wrong.
It’s not unlike thinking you can skip the sunscreen today because it’s cloudy. Just because you can’t see the sun doesn’t mean you aren’t being exposed to harmful ultraviolet radiation.
So, where does this leave us? You shouldn’t trash your beach umbrella or cabana. They still serve a purpose: providing modest relief on the hottest days. But we do need to stop thinking of them as an effective means of sun protection, especially if you tend to skip reapplying your sunscreen in favor of sitting in the shade.
Before you head to the beach, and then every couple of hours once you’re there (more often if you’re in and out of the water a lot), cover yourself in a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. It’s also a good idea to wear sun-protective clothing, including a hat that shields your face.
Those are your first lines of defense against the sun, not your umbrella.