June 07, 2021

Men’s Rash Guard Shirt Style Guide

If you’re an avid surfer, odds are you already know what a rash guard is. Historically, these versatile articles of clothing were designed for—and mostly worn by—surfers. Today, however, more and more rash guards are finding their way into the summer wardrobes of the unanointed: non-surfers who, for any of a large number of reasons, decide to wear rash guards when they go to the beach, the pool, or anywhere else.

What is it that makes rash guards so useful, and why would non-surfers find themselves questing for the perfect rash guard—a shirt originally meant for experienced surfers? We’ll get into all of that, so read on for an in-depth look.

History Of The Rash Guard

Back in the day, it wasn’t customary for men to go topless at the beach or the pool. If you’ve ever seen old-timey photos of guys in their full-body swimsuits, you’ve seen what was the norm up until the 1930s—when it started to be common for men to strip down to their shorts when they took a dip. That quickly became the new normal and stayed that way for decades.

Things started to change as surfing gained popularity—and as surfers became aware of their specific needs while catching waves. While the average swimmer usually has a pretty easygoing time at the beach, surfers put themselves through some intense conditions: slamming into abrasive saltwater, sliding against sand, and sitting in the summer sun, waiting for the next big wave.

In the 1970s, Australian surfers realized the need for protection against the elements. While regular cotton t-shirts were helpful, they were also bulky and heavy in the water—increasing drag and making it harder to surf. Something had to be designed that could protect them from the sun, the sand, and the sea. Thus, the rash guard was born.

Rash Guards, Swim Shirts, and Wetsuits

While rash guards are certainly some of the most versatile and useful pieces of swimwear available, they’re not the only top that men might choose to wear in the water. Swim shirts are very similar in design (with some notable differences that we’ll discuss), and wetsuits are often favored by surfers and scuba divers alike for their ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures. Whether you decide to rock a rash guard, a swim shirt, or a wetsuit is entirely up to you—but it’s helpful to know the differences between the three.

Rash Guards

Because they were originally designed for surfers, many people might look at rash guards and instantly think that they’re not able to wear them—to many people, rash guards look like surfer gear. But these days, more and more people are realizing the need to protect themselves while enjoying their day at the beach, and rash guards offer some of the best protection available.

Rash guards typically have long sleeves but can also come in short-sleeved or sleeveless varieties, depending on the wearer’s needs and preferences. They usually feature flatlock stitching that cuts down on chafing and general discomfort and are made from performance fabrics that dry quickly, stretch with the body of the wearer, and offer UV protection.

Swim Shirts

Swim shirts (also called surf shirts) can come in a variety of different styles and cuts. There are long-sleeved, short-sleeved, and sleeveless swim shirts, but the long-sleeved ones are best for fulfilling their chief purpose: providing protection from UV radiation. There are other features that many of the best swim shirts have, like moisture-wicking capabilities and antimicrobial properties.

At first glance, swim shirts might look almost identical to rash guards—but there are some differences. The biggest difference is in the way each shirt fits. Rash guards tend to be much more form-fitting, similar to a compression shirt; swim shirts often fit more like regular clothing—providing UV protection with a looser fit.

The looser fit of a swim shirt is why many surfers prefer rash guards—loose-fitting clothing can create more drag and inhibit a surfer’s ability to perform at their best, so a tight-fitting rash guard is often preferable.


The modern wetsuit came about in the 1950s as a way to protect divers from extremely cold temperatures and any sharp objects that they may encounter. They basically work by trapping a small amount of water inside the suit—that water is naturally heated by the wearer’s body temperature and becomes insulation from the cold.

While wetsuits are very popular among divers, they may be a bit more constraining for surfers than a rash guard or a swim shirt (and they might be a bit extreme for the casual beach-goer). Of course, if you plan on surfing or swimming in the non-summer months, a wetsuit can certainly help you stay warm—so it all comes down to individual needs and preferences.

What To Look For

If you’re interested in getting a rash guard of your own—whether to replace your old one or to expand your swimwear ensemble—there are some factors to keep in mind. Modern advancements in fabric technology have made for some excellent rash guards that are capable of doing much more than their mid-20th-century counterparts. At a minimum, your rash guard should have these characteristics:

Moisture-Wicking Properties

If you have a good set of workout gear, you probably already possess clothing with moisture-wicking capabilities. Moisture-wicking refers to a fabric’s ability to rapidly draw moisture (like sweat) away from the body and allow it to dry quickly on the surface of the material. This is especially useful in athletic apparel, which needs to be able to handle large amounts of sweat but is also ideal for beach-goers.

If you’ve ever sat around uncomfortably in a wet bathing suit, you know the struggle of materials that are no good at wicking moisture away from your body—maybe some people enjoy the feeling of cold, wet clothing, but the rest of us like to be cool and wet when in the water, and warm and dry when on land. A rash guard made from moisture-wicking material will dry quickly, keeping you comfortable when in and out of the water.

Antimicrobial Properties

Antimicrobial materials are engineered to kill or slow the spread of microorganisms that live on our bodies. While it may be upsetting to think about the millions of tiny microorganisms that hang out with us every day, they’re mostly helpful—except for when they mix with sweat. When microorganisms and sweat meet, they create some pretty unpleasant body odors.

That’s why antimicrobial materials were created—to fight those odors before they start. If you’re planning to spend a day in the sun, the clothing you wear should have some antimicrobial properties.

UV Protection

Maybe the most important factor to keep in mind when looking at rash guards is their ability to protect you from the harmful radiation that comes along with the sun’s warming rays. After all, UV protection was one of the reasons that rash guards were invented in the first place.

While many people swear by their favorite brand of sunscreen, there’s always one major problem with sunscreens and other protective lotions: they wash off. If you’re sweating in the sun or swimming in the sea, the sunscreen on your body is only going to last so long—that’s where UV protective clothing comes in.

You may have seen the letters UPF on beachwear and other outdoorsy clothing. UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor, and it refers to a fabric’s ability to block out UV rays. Some of the best swimwear has UPF50 protection, which essentially means that the fabric blocks out 1/50th (or 98%) of the sun’s rays.

While a suntan can be attractive to many people, there are also many risks associated with prolonged exposure to the sun—so it’s very important to take care of yourself and protect your skin from radiation.

Willy California’s Rash Guard

At Willy California, we have a couple of rash guards in our collection—and we’re pretty partial to them. Our classic Rash Guard is a stylish, understated piece that’s perfect for hardcore surfers and casual beach-goers alike. Made from a high-performance blend of polyester and spandex, our ultra-stretchy Rash Guard has antimicrobial and moisture-wicking properties—and it offers top-notch UPF50 protection. 

And if you like all of the features of our classic Rash Guard but want a touch of flair, check out our California Rash Guard, which features an image of California’s iconic palm trees.

In Conclusion

The rash guard may seem like a surfer-specific piece of swimwear, but that’s only because of its history and its continued association with surfers. These days, more and more people are becoming aware of the importance of protecting themselves from the harmful aspects of the beach so that they can better enjoy the fun ones. As such, the rash guard is quickly becoming recognized as an essential article of clothing for anybody who likes to spend hours under the sun, on the sand, or in the sea.