What is a Rash Guard? And How Do I Choose One?

Last Updated 24 Apr 2024 by Fiona Perisone

Rash guards are a popular sun protection method at the beach or pool. But as you'll learn below, these athletic-style, long-sleeve shirts shield you from more than just UV rays.

In this brief overview of rash guards, we'll answer commonly asked questions about what they are and why they're so popular. Plus, we'll highlight key product features that set the best rash guards apart from the rest.

What is a rash guard?

Put simply, rash guards are shirts designed to be worn in and around the water. Their high-neck, long-sleeve designs fit tightly against the body like a second skin. Most are made from performance fabrics that wick moisture, dry quickly, and prevent odors.

Though originally created for Australian surfers, they're now commonly used for swimming, boating, and other water activities where you need protection from UV rays and potential abrasions. Some MMA athletes even use them for protection from mat burns.

Why is it called a rash guard?

Rash guards (sometimes referred to as rash vests or rashies) are named for their protective nature. They were initially developed in the 1970s as a way to protect surfers' chests and arms from the sandy, wax-covered surface of their surfboards. The added layer helps 'guard' against chafing and skin irritation— hence the name.

What is the purpose of a rash guard?

Rash guards are a versatile piece of clothing for any water lover to have on hand. Though originally developed for surfers, they're now a popular choice for lifeguards, water sports enthusiasts, and casual beachgoers who sunburn easily. Here are the main reasons to wear a rash guard:

Rash Protection— As the name suggests, rash guards provide your skin with an extra layer of protection. They prevent rashes, chafing, and other skin irritation during surfing, boogie boarding, and other water sports. Wear it over your swimsuit or under your wetsuit.

Sun Protection— By covering your chest, back, and arms, a rash guard offers protection from harmful UV rays. They're a practical way to minimize your risk of sunburn while enjoying your favorite water activities.

Practicality— A rash guard ensures you're ready to go straight from the beach to a casual lunch or quick grocery run without needing to change your shirt.

Modesty— Similarly, more modest beachgoers enjoy the added coverage a rash guard provides at the beach or pool.

What is the difference between rash guards and swim shirts?

Despite slight differences between the two styles, the terms rash guard and swim shirt are often used interchangeably.

Rash guards are made with heavy-duty fabric that can withstand frequent abrasion against the wearer's surfboard. This dense blend of polyester, nylon, and/or spandex often feels akin to a light wetsuit fabric. As a result, rash guards offer both abrasion and sun protection.

Swim shirts, on the other hand, are made using super lightweight, stretchy fabrics. While they dry quickly and protect their wearer from harmful UV rays, they offer a different level of durability and abrasion resistance. They're ideal for those who sunburn easily.

What should I look for in a rash guard?

Regardless if you are seeking kids' rash guards or adult rash guards, the best rash guards on the swimwear market all have a few things in common. Here are a few key design details to keep an eye out for as you shop:

Performance Fabrics

Most regular rash guards are made from polyester, nylon, spandex, or a combination of the three synthetic fibers. They're often treated with special chemicals to improve UV protection and speed up dry times. Opt for a shirt made using recycled materials to minimize your microplastic contribution.

Sun Protection

Opt for a rash guard made from UVA and UVB rays-blocking fabric for maximum sun protection. Products marked with a 'UPF protection' rating will help fend off unwanted sun exposure. While undoubtedly beneficial to the wearer, the environmental impacts of these treatments are still largely unknown.

Tight Fit

A well-fitting rash guard should fit snugly without compromising comfort or restricting your range of motion. Shirts that are too loose can get tangled around your body or caught in your equipment, and exactly how tight it is entirely up to your personal preference.

Gender Specific

To find the best fit, choose a rash guard that is designed specifically for your sex. For example, women's rash guards are cut that are more comfortable around the bust area and less for shoulders and lats.

Long Sleeves Or Short Sleeve Rash Guard

Most rash guards have long sleeves for complete sun protection but can hinder your freedom of movement. With that being said, plenty of short sleeve rash guards and sleeveless options are made using the same quick-drying performance fabrics.

Thermal Protection

If you are swimming, water skiing, snorkeling, or doing other outdoor activities in the cooler water, you may want a rash guard to provide you with some warmth. In these cases, look for a thick wetsuit like a rash guard made from neoprene or fleece-like material.

About the Author

Fiona is a veteran travel consultant, photographer and travel writer at planetrider.com. She has spent many years as a corporate travel consultant and decided to actually live the life rather than plan it for others!