Any dermatologist will tell you that wearing a T-shirt in the pool (or on the beach) is a good decision for the long-term health of your skin. This one, for example: “I highly recommend wearing sun shirts, rash guards or other forms of sun-protective clothing,” says dermatologist Anthony Rossi.
That’s because even moderate exposure to the sun can cause yellowing of the skin, wrinkles, brown spots, pre-cancers and skin cancers. On top of that, sunscreen alone isn’t always enough to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays.
So why aren’t more people wearing T-shirts in the pool? The simple answer is embarrassment: We mostly associate wearing shirts in the pool with either sunburned children or chubby guys making a poor attempt at hiding their chub. In the bare-everything culture we live in, wearing a shirt in the pool is a sign that you have something to hide.
It’s worth remembering, though, that going shirtless in the pool is a relatively recent idea in civilized society. Men’s swimwear in the 1910s resembled the modern-day RompHim, while in the 1920s, the preferred look was the still modest tank top.
Covering up during this period was really just the done thing, though, and had nothing to do with trying to ward off skin cancer or hide a pot belly. “Even during the 1940s and 1950s, people were a lot more reserved and not used to seeing so much skin,” explains L.A.-based stylist Rayne Parvis. If anything, people were actively discouraged from showing off their bodies: In Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America, writers Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker write that public swimming pools in the 1910s instructed men not to wear suits that conformed too closely to their physique.
Strange as it sounds, this attitude only began to change with the 1932 release of Tarzan the Ape Man, a movie in which former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller wore nothing but a loincloth. Following his lead, more and more shirtless men hit the big screen, and voilà: A shirtless revolution (slowly) began to take place, eventually birthing the male swimwear we’re familiar with today (and later, the infamous, long-sought after six pack).
“Nowadays, anything goes,” Parvis says. “If you saw a man wearing only a Speedo to the pool, you wouldn’t blink an eye.” The flip side of this is that when we see a guy rocking a T-shirt in the pool, we assume he’s covering his gut, or at the very least a regrettable tattoo.
For those of us who are striving to remain cancer-free, though, the big question is: Can you look good while wearing a T-shirt in the pool? Parvis admits that very few things look as good as simply being confident about your body (even if you do have a gut), but there is one option for those who absolutely must cover up:
“If you’re going to be swimming, I recommend wearing a colorful skin-tight rash guard, rather than a loose T-shirt,” Parvis says. “That way, it looks like you dressed this way on purpose, instead of looking like you just threw something on because you’re self-conscious about your body.”
So there you have it: If you want to wear a shirt in the pool — and you care about the long-term health of your skin — wear one that’s meant to be worn in the pool.
After all, you wouldn’t wear snowshoes in the desert.