Choosing the Best Sun Hat

Heads up: the right hat is your first line of defense against summer sun damage.

July 9, 2012

With reports finding that some sunscreen chemicals contain carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals, you might be wondering what to do to protect you and your family from sunburn this season. While most dermatologists certainly aren't advising people to ditch sunscreen, most do agree that sunscreens alone aren't enough to protect you from too much sun. Instead, many leading doctors recommend an arsenal of interventions to fend off overexposure, and one tool is a trusty sun-protection hat.

The problem is that not all hats are created equal and some could be leaving sensitive skin areas unprotected. And remember, hats work best in direct sunlight, not on cloudy days, on which the light is more diffuse, Ira Davis, MD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology, advises. Diffused light is scattered about more, making it harder for the hat to protect your face, ears, and neck. Here's how expert dermatologists rate different types of hats in terms of sun protection. (Dr. Davis also recommends combining using sunscreen, wearing sun-protective clothing, and avoiding sun between 10 a.m. and 3 or 4 p.m. as a way to cut back on exposure to the sun's most powerful rays.)


Summer Hats: Do They Protect You? 

1. Straw Hat

Straw hats are popular in the garden and at the beach because the lighter material also breathes well, providing comfort in hot climes. But unless there's a tightly woven cloth fabric lining the inside, you're not getting the sun protection you need. "Materials like straw are cooler to wear, but can be loosely woven," explains Robin Ashinoff, MD, chief of dermatologic, Mohs, and laser surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.


2. Baseball Cap
Going to a ball game? You'd be better off wearing a different type of hat than the players on the field are wearing. "I don't recommend baseball caps because there is no coverage of ears or back of neck," explains Dr. Ashinoff. Still, a baseball hat isn't totally useless in terms of sun protection. A peaked baseball cap protects the scalp and the top of the nose. If you don't want to wear sunscreen in conjunction with the hat, aim to score seats in the shady part of the stadium. If you wear a flatter baseball cap, you're basically only ensuring forehead protection.


3. Flap Hat
Think of this hat as a baseball cap with flaps that fall down the side of your face, better protecting your ears, cheeks, and neck. Some types even sport Velcro so you can fold each side's flap over your nose, protecting all parts of your face except your eyes (see one of those towards the end of our video about sun-protective clothing). The downfall? You certainly aren't going to win a fashion show wearing this type of hat. But hey, our dermatology experts say it's among the best in terms of sun protection. Look for this style, and others, in tightly woven fabrics that offer SPF 30 and beyond protection. (Our Nickel Pincher wears a version at left; see it in action in her video about foraging for fruit).





4. Bucket Hat
The bucket hat offers some of the same protections of the flap hat, but does this to a lesser degree. This style of hat is popular among fisherman, but vulnerable areas should be slathered with a safer sunscreen, particularly if you're on the water, which reflects the sun's rays.

5. Cowboy Hat
Farming is making a comeback, particularly among younger, sustainable-living types. Whether you're herding cattle or just donning a 10-gallon cowboy hat for fun, think of it as middle of the road in terms of sun protection; part of the sun solution, but not complete protection. "The cowboy hat is good because there is some coverage of the ears, forehead, and neck," notes Dr. Ashinoff.


6. Flapper Hat
The 1920s-style flapper hat is making a comeback in terms of fashion, but it's lacking in sun protection. "It only really covers the scalp," says Dr. Ashinoff. Save this hat for sunless nights out on the town, and turn to more powerful sun-protection hats, like a trusty wide-brimmed hat, during the day.
7. Wide-Brimmed Hat
The wide-brimmed hat is hailed as one of the top performers among sun-protective hats. For every inch of hat brim you regularly wear, you’re reducing your risk of cancer by 10 percent. So a hat with a four-inch brim, worn regularly, could slash your skin cancer risk by 40 percent, according to skin cancer experts. That said, you have to consider a few things. Dr. Davis says a hat should have a brim of at least three inches. Better yet, seek a wide-brimmed hat made of SPF 30+ material, like those from companies like Tilley, Coolibar, and Sun Precautions, Dr. Davis adds.