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What do you look for in a swimsuit? Sleeves.

Lisa Levine (with family) favors rash guards from Swimzip.
Lisa Levine (with family) favors rash guards from Swimzip.Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe

The rash guard is on the rise. Born of necessity, the protective surf shirts, worn in the water or out, are becoming the must-have summer accessory for adults and kids alike.

“I love them for the look, with a little swim skirt. They’re so cute,” said Karen Solari, self-described “rash guard junkie.”

J.Crew offering.
J.Crew offering.

The mother of four initially started buying the long- and short-sleeved shirts for her fair-skinned children who spend many a summer day on the family boat and at the beach. “When they go boogie boarding, they truly get awful rashes,” she said. But the Newton mom realized she should cover up — from the sun more than the rough surf — and set out to assemble a wardrobe of white and navy nautical rash guards from Athleta.


There are no industry figures specific to rash guard use, but Dr. Ramzi Saad, a spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation, has seen an increase.

“There’s been a surge in popularity,” said Saad, a dermatologist at South Shore Skin Center in Plymouth and Cohasset.

The SCF’s Seal of Recommendation program has likewise seen an increase in the number of companies joining the roster of clothing manufacturers that meet UPF criteria. (UPF is the US textile and clothing rating for sun protection, and the SCF requires a standard rating of 30 or higher.)

The Seal of Recommendation program started its index of clothing lines in 2002. Back then, only traditional surf lines such as O’Neill and Quiksilver were on the list, but recently J.Crew and Lands’ End have joined the effort.

Saad likens the increased acceptance of sun-protective clothing, but especially rash guards, to the refashioning of another, at times unpopular, accessory.

“When I was growing up, braces were a big stigma. Now they flock to them because they’re colored and DayGlo pink. When rash guards were a boring style initially, no one wanted to wear them. But the industry took the lead to create fashionable styles so there’s lots of choices and configurations,” he said.


The dermatologist said all of his conversations with patients about skin protection are multi-pronged. He tries to sell them on anti-wrinkle benefits as much as sun protection, and pushes the UPF clothing as an efficient partner to sunscreen.

“The beauty of the clothing is you don’t have to reapply it and it doesn’t wash off when you’re swimming and there’s no gaps,” he said.

The convenience factor is precisely what drew Lisa Levine to buy her first rash guard last summer. The Needham mother of three often takes her children to the pool by herself, and has no one to apply sunscreen to her back.

Levine, a physician who does health care consulting, bought one rash guard style at Tommy Bahama, but found her favorite ones at Swimzip, an e-commerce website founded by Betsy Johnson, a skin cancer survivor. Levine said Swimzip is especially well-known for its children’s styles, but the adult ones are both flattering and well-priced.

Tom Mora, head women’s designer of J.Crew, said he has injected personality into more than two dozen rash guard silhouettes (long- and short-sleeved, and sleeveless options) and an array of prints and patterns this year.

“Who would have known it was such an important piece of business?” said Mora. “We have such a huge swim following. You have to make sure you’re speaking to the customer.”


Mora said J.Crew is having that customer conversation by offering a range of looks, from bright blue Neoprene for the true surfer to a navy one with a multi-colored fish print.

It’s a similarly stylish story at Madewell — think camouflage and tulip prints — and Athleta, which offers customers dozens of choices in shades like razzleberry and with details like side shirring. Tracy Byrnes, senior manager of innovation at Athleta, said no one wants a rash guard that gets heavy in water, or — even worse — sags.

“We have to make sure with rash guards that it doesn’t droop,” she said. “We know (our customer) is probably by the water, [but] our products are so versatile she wears them running to the gym.”

Emily Sonier, who started wearing a rash guard three years ago, can’t believe how much the shirts have evolved in such a short time.

“When I bought it at Athleta, it was the only one I could find for women,” she said.

Sonier has a solid white one with dark pink stitching — a small statement of style in what she otherwise describes as “plain.”

“They’re so much a fashion statement now, I’m a little bit embarrassed,” said the 45-year-old mother of two. “But any time I’m out doing activities with my children and water, I put it on.”

Jill Radsken can be reached at jill.radsken@globe.com.