Going to the beach just isn’t as simple as it used to be. I grew up in the Coppertone era, when Johnson’s Baby Oil and Hawaiian Tropic were the only alternatives, meant to “enhance” the tanning process, not prevent it. When I was a teenager, there was no sun protection factor (SPF); I had never heard of UVA or UVB (ultraviolet radiation), not to mention melanoma or signs of aging. After decades of being somewhat (read: very) addicted to tanning, I started to study the effects of the sun on skin. That was my rehab.
Now when I go to the beach, it’s close to 5PM. On sunny days, I wear an SPF 50 tinted sunscreen on my face (as foundation); on cloudy days, an SPF 15 tinted moisturizer—so I’m protected pretty much every day of the year. I also don’t feel the need to be in any kind of skimpy bathing suit—for many reasons. What’s wrong with a nice flowy caftan at the beach?
Well, for one, lightweight cotton doesn’t really protect your skin from the sun. “A T-shirt is equivalent to about an SPF 8,” Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, MD, PhD, a dermatologist in New York, tells LivingHealthy. This summer I’m going a step further and embracing UPF—ultraviolet protection factor—in addition to my SPF.
Clothing can be measured for its UPF based on fabric weave and UV-inhibiting fabric treatments. UPF for clothing is a measurement much like SPF is for sunscreen; it’s the ratio of time spent in the sun with protection comparable to time without. So a UPF 50 means you can spend 50 times as long in the sun (without burning) while wearing that item as you could without it.
UPF clothing is usually designed to cover more areas of the skin than a swimsuit, and everyone from L.L.Bean and REI to J.Crew and Athleta is offering it. It can be fashionable, too. Some bathing suit manufacturers, such as LeSwim, fabricate suits entirely from UPF 50+ material. Mott 50 is a line of stylish sun-protective beachwear and clothing that can be worn to a festive summer lunch as well as a day at the beach. Mott 50 is serious about its protection; it’s sold not only online, but in dermatologist practices all over the country from Westlake Dermatology in Texas and The Skin Ranch in Virginia to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
I’ve totally embraced Mott 50’s Sonja swim dress, which doubles as a dress and a top. For me, it’s the perfect beach cover-up as I never take it off and the fabric actually feels cooling. I could even paddle-board in it (the only time I actually paddle-boarded I was so self-conscious standing in my swimsuit that I could barely move).
As for the itsy-bitsy bikinis from LeSwim (gorgeous, but you’ll never catch me in one of them), I wonder about the rest of the skin that is exposed. “We often apply sunscreen after a bathing suit is on,” says LeSwim designer Adriana Caras. “But melanoma can occur anywhere, so why not protect yourself in the areas you may overlook?” Her fabrics are woven in a way to provide UPF 50+ in the construction, not via chemical treatment, so the protection won’t wash out.
UPF makes a lot of sense. Alexiades-Armenakas says that in her practice, she sees a number of men with skin cancer on their scalp even though they wear opaque baseball caps. She stocks up on protective clothing from Sun Precautions every year, including a white zip cover-up and a white crushable hat with SPF 100 for her summer vacation in Greece. “You do not get a tan through a hat with this treated material.”
And that’s a great thing. Tanning is so ’70s anyway.