Science

In Praise of Parasols

If you weren’t carrying a sun umbrella this summer, you blew it.

A man happily holds an ice cream cone and a parasol as sweating, hot passers-by look on.
Franco Zacharzewski

It’s truly strange that people don’t use parasols. Here we are, not long past the planet’s hottest-ever month, and most of us still rely on second-rate technologies for warding off the sun. We’ll put on UV-protectant creams and lip balms. We’ll hide our faces under wide-brimmed hats. At times, we’ll even put on pants and long-sleeve shirts in the middle of a heat wave. But no one seems to think about the better, cheaper, older option: an umbrella.

Take it from a convert. I’ve remade myself, in recent months, into what the Japanese refer to as higasa danshi: a “parasol man.” Since midsummer, I’ve been trotting through my New York City neighborhood underneath my purple Totes umbrella, free of bulky clothes or greasy ointments, and rolling in a private patch of shade. In pursuing this auspicious habit, I’ve learned (and felt) firsthand what’s been known from lab experiments: Umbrellas are among the most efficient means of staying safe and cool in the summer sun.

It’s only through a tragic rupture in the history of fashion that the parasol ever disappeared from U.S. streets. Our first mistake was the relegation, centuries ago, of the sunshade as a feminine accessory, and a frivolity best used for flirting. “The parasol is the umbrella’s daughter,/ And associates with the fan,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “While her father abuts the tempest/ and abridges the rain.” But as the critic Marion Rankine points out in her splendid book-length essay on umbrellas, Dickinson had the ancestry reversed: The parasol’s the daddy here, by a space of several thousand years, and all that abutting and abridging rain would happen later. In their early days, parasols represented strength and masculinity—a kingly privilege to be shaded from the sun. (Back then, of course, someone else would hold the king’s umbrella.)

The rules on who gets to carry an umbrella, and in which meteorological conditions, have flipped inside out as time has gone by. I’m surely on the wrong side of things these days, as a man with a parasol. One could say that I’ve been walking in the footsteps of the London dandy Jonas Hanway, who first unfurled his silk umbrella in the rain while strolling down Pall Mall in 1756. Hanway had learned of this “machine” during his travels to the East and had seen it used by men in Paris to protect against all kinds of weather. Back then, the French referred to parasols as les Robinsons, after the fictional Crusoe, whose jury-rigged goatskin umbrella was “a most useful thing to me, as well for the rains as the heats.” The Parisians even had stalls set up on either end of the Pont Neuf to rent out sun umbrellas to pedestrians for crossing.

Still, Hanway’s neighbors back at home were nonplussed by his device. Eighty years later, a writer for the Penny Magazine imagined the scene that day: “What a silly and effeminate jackanapes that enduring and adventurous traveler must have been considered,” the article explains. “No doubt, many urchins and idle fellows scampered through the wet to see the wonder and hoot the wonder-maker.” By then, of course, the standards for rain gear had been revised in England—and in the U.S., too. A man could hoist up his umbrella without shame (but only toward a cloudy sky). Warding off the sun, though, was women’s work.

There were some notable exceptions. The redheaded explorer William Clark, for instance, was known to have brought along a sun umbrella for his Western expedition— and to have lost it in a Montana hailstorm, along with his tomahawk and compass, in summer 1805. But these were few and hardly influential. By the mid-19th century, parasols were understood to be a female beauty aid. “The ancient and feudal parasol, relegated to history with its privileges and heavy forms, has disappeared from use,” wrote the French umbrella-maker René-Marie Cazal in 1844. It had been replaced, he said, by “the most coquettish, the most delicate” alternative—one that “embellishes and develops a woman’s graces” and “shields her virginal candor from greedy looks.”

The sunshade remained a tentpole element of female fashion into the early years of the 20th century. “A woman who does not know how to carry a parasol in as graceful fashion as she can wield a fan should lose no time in acquiring the art,” a newspaper advised in 1914. Manners only turned against the parasol in the 1920s, when expert views of sun exposure turned, both in terms of beauty and of public health. Doctors came to see tanning as a worthy intervention for the sickly and the young, even to the point of burning patients’ skin. Style mavens, in the meantime, declared that tans were very smart— “the index of chic,” per Coco Chanel.

So parasols were banished, like the bodice and the bustle. Of course, the Earth’s atmosphere was very different when all of this went down. A hundred years ago, just before the sun umbrella was cast into its winter, the average August temperature in New York’s Central Park registered at 71 degrees. Compare that with our average from last year, of 78 degrees. If that’s the bigger trend we face—if further hottest-evers will only pile up in years to come—then we surely ought to think of pulling out the parasols from storage.

This umbrella movement, if it happens, will have to be grassroots. Five million Americans are treated for nonmelanoma skin cancer every year at a cost of more than $8 billion, rates are on the rise, and still official bodies never waver from their boring, boilerplate advice on sun protection. “Stay in the shade and wear protective clothing, a hat with a wide brim, and sunglasses, as well as sunscreen,” says a website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those four suggested items—clothing, hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen—are standardized across each advisory or fact sheet on the topic, whether it’s published by the Food and Drug Administration, the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Dermatology, or the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Better this advice than none at all, I guess—but where are the umbrellas? A simple parasol can outperform any of these other solar countermeasures, and by no small degree.

Start with sunscreen, which is often taken as the first and most important line of defense, but is, in truth, a lousy, overrated product. SPF creams and lotions represent a $2 billion market in the U.S., despite the threat they pose to coral reefs and the fact that the chemicals in certain types can seep into a user’s bloodstream (a phenomenon that doesn’t really sound so great even if it may not be a danger).

Sunscreens are also very costly for consumers: The cheapest kinds go for at least $1 per fluid ounce, which is the recommended quantity for a single application (upscale brands may charge 10 or 20 times that much). For best results we’re told to reapply this dose half a dozen times per day.

Of course, no one really uses that much suntan lotion. As my colleague Shannon Palus has pointed out in Slate, people tend to underslather sunscreen by a factor of at least one-half. But even if this scrimping ends up saving a bit of money, overall, it can lead to other, bigger problems; namely, that most sunscreen users will never get anything like the sun protection that they’re expecting.

It’s bad enough that sunscreen is expensive, possibly toxic, and just about impossible to use correctly. But sunscreen’s true flaw is that it fails to keep you cool. If you coat your face and neck in SPF 500 you might be safe from mutagenic UV light, but you’ll still be roasting in the summer sun.

The mere act of standing in direct sunlight on a clear day can make a person feel 15 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. It can also increase a person’s risk of getting heat exhaustion or sunstroke. The most expensive lotions in the world won’t offer any help in this regard; in fact, they could even make things worse. Sunscreens made with mineral ingredients—the kinds that now are trending as an alternative to the chemical ones—seem to interfere with the body’s sweat production, slowing the rate at which it cools itself. A 2016 study conducted by scientists in Costa Rica found that the application of a (Nivea-branded) inorganic sunscreen had about the same effect on sweat production as the use of a roll-on antiperspirant.

When it comes to sun hats, it’s a much closer call. The seminal research on this topic comes from the classic British biometeorology duo Diffey and Cheeseman. In August 1991, these two researchers set up a spinning metal rod on the grounds outside their hospital in Durham, England, and affixed it with half a dozen mannequin heads. Over the course of several days, they measured the sun exposure of these heads while in the shade of each of 28 different hats. “It may be seen that all types of headgear provide good protection to the forehead,” Diffey and Cheeseman concluded when their research reached its end. But for other regions of the face, style mattered quite a bit. According to their data, a Russian fur hat offered almost no protection to a person’s nose or cheek. A checked deerstalker put shadow on the nose and back of the neck, but failed in other places. A white cotton cricketer’s hat yielded excellent results at every face location but the chin. A tartan trilby hat came out somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Diffey and Cheeseman’s work did establish that a hat could offer real protection from the sun, especially when it has a big and floppy brim. Still, their study raised more questions than it answered. Should we all be wearing cricketer’s hats during the summer, or might some other style provide an even more effective solar barricade? Last year, a team of Swiss investigators put out a fresher study of this question, based on computer simulations and published in the journal Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine. Their results were disappointing: The perfect sun hat is a myth, they said, since diffuse and reflected UV light can even edge beneath a jumbo brim that’s 7 inches wide. “Sun protection messages need to clearly emphasize that no hat fits all situations,” they warned.

UV light aside, do sun hats keep you cool? It seems as though they must provide at least a bit of thermal comfort, insofar as they provide a little patch of shade across your face. On the other hand, a sun hat is (if nothing else) a kind of hat, and hats, as hats, have a tendency to warm whatever head they’re covering with cotton, straw, or polyester. How do these countervailing forces balance out? It’s hard to say. The thermal feeling of a hat—how hot or cool it makes your head and the microclimate that it forms—depends on many different factors, starting with its fabric and design. When it comes to sun hats in particular, we don’t have much to go on. Here’s one modest data point, based on just a dozen volunteers: When Korean researchers did a laboratory simulation of the hot, exhausting work of picking chile peppers, they found that people wearing sun hats were less prone to feeling heat stress.

Let’s step back a minute. We know that wide-brimmed hats offer some protection from UV light, and it’s reasonable to assume that, at least in certain situations, one might feel a little cooler in a sun hat, overall. (The same could perhaps be said of long-sleeved linen shirts and pants.) Now imagine that someone had invented a new and better form of sun hat—one with a brim that was big enough to shade your entire head and face, and your shoulders, too. Let’s pretend this new accessory—the sun hat 2.0—had another, even more significant advantage: You wouldn’t even need to wear it pressed against your skin, warming up the microclimate of your scalp and cutting off the cooling breeze. It would be, instead, something like a nice, big sun hat that floated 12 or 18 inches up above your head, maybe perched atop a lightweight metal pole.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

It would indeed. Parasols provide their users with a 30 percent drop in the experienced intensity of solar radiation. Over several days in August 2015, a team of scientists from Nagoya, Japan, tested the cooling effects of black, white, and brown 18-inch parasols. Temperatures during the study period ranged from 87 to 99 degrees, and the humidity was as high as 75 percent. They found that the temperatures recorded underneath the umbrellas were reduced by as much as 11 degrees during the day. When they checked the WetBulb Globe Temperature—a more complicated measure of heat stress—they found that parasols could yield a 5-degree improvement.

None of this should be surprising. Parasols are common in East Asia, although there’s still a gender bias in their use. Studies done in Japan, for example, suggest that 25 to 30 percent of female pedestrians carry umbrellas in the sun, with male pedestrians are much more likely to wear hats. In recent years, and in response to deadly heat waves, Japanese health officials have been doing what they can to spread the use of parasols to men—to encourage more higasa danshi. (As part of this campaign, children are encouraged to buy their parents parasols for Father’s Day.)  Meanwhile, according to government-sponsored research, men using parasols end up sweating 17 percent less than those in sun hats.

In the U.S., though, parasols have never made a comeback, not even close. There have been a few false starts from time to time, and some premature predictions. When the queen of England showed up with a parasol for Prince Charles’ investiture, 50 years ago this summer, the Associated Press ran this headline: “Parasol Next Fashion Fad?” It was not.

The AP tried again in 2008. The designer Anna Sui had put sun umbrellas on the fashion runway at least four times, the story said, and the accessory was “gaining in celebrity appeal.” It may have gained, but then it lost.

The weird thing is, Americans do use umbrellas to protect ourselves against the sun—but only when those umbrellas are very large and planted in one place. We’d all admit that parasols are kosher at the beach, or on patios, or when they’re standing over tables at an outdoor restaurant. But a sun umbrella that’s small enough to carry in your hand? Don’t be ridiculous.

I do realize that the parasol competes for grip space with other, potentially more important instruments. I’ve dealt with this dilemma many times in recent weeks: With a bag in one hand, what should go into the other? Am I better off shaded from the sun or connected to the internet? But I really doubt that this concern has made a difference in umbrella fashion. After all, this hands-free logic hasn’t turned us off from rain umbrellas, which are exactly as cumbersome to carry and no less frequently required. (Here in New York City, we get 121 days per year with rain and 107 days with heavy sun.) You might choose to wear a hooded poncho instead of hauling an umbrella, if the hassle of the latter really bothered you. Or maybe you could coat your skin with water-sealant lotion.

No, I’m guessing that the parasol is just too besmirched by prior connotations, as a symbol of an ugly and outdated gender norm, and as a tool for glorifying pale complexions. Could Americans be coaxed to carry sunshades, if the marketing were right? Perhaps a line of parasols designed for Jonas Hanway types, with canopies of dashing plaid and polished wooden hilts? What if our leading anti-sunburn organizations could acknowledge its perfection as a protective screen? Might this be enough to bring umbrellas back in from the cold, so we can bring them out again into the heat?

One can only hope.