Protective Clothing

Sunscreen is perhaps the best-known method of sun protection. However, clothing can also provide additional skin cancer prevention. Protective clothing has advantages: It does not have to be reapplied, and it is not subject to errors in application, such as missed spots.

Which Types of Clothing Protect Skin Best?

As evidenced by tan lines from a bathing suit, fabrics can block UV rays from penetrating the skin, protecting it from damage. Certain fabrics are more protective than others. Some common fabrics, from greatest to least skin cancer protection, are listed below.

  • Specially treated UV-protective fabrics
  • Dark denim
  • Merino wool
  • Polyester and polyester blends
  • Silk
  • Cotton
  • Viscose
  • Loose knits
  • Worn fabrics.

Overall, fabric with a tighter weave offers better protection, as do darker colors. Clothing’s UV protection is reduced when it is wet.

UV Protective Accessories

Accessories can also help protect specific, vulnerable body parts. Skin cancers often develop on areas of skin frequently exposed to sun, such as the scalp, ears, neck and face. Hats can help protect these areas. Those that offer the best protection have a full, wide brim all around, or a long flap in the back that covers the neck (and sometimes the ears).

Sun exposure can damage the eyes as well as the skin. UV radiation can cause damage to the cornea, the outer layer of the eye. This can cause an immediate burn to the cornea; long-term exposure increases the risk for cataracts. Sunglasses can protect the eye, as well as the sensitive surrounding skin. Be sure to look for sunglasses that advertise UV protection, as not all sunglasses block UV rays.

UV Clothing for Skin Cancer Prevention

Special clothing that incorporates additional sun protection is available from some retailers. Clothing items in this category have been treated with chemicals that absorb UV radiation, similar to the function of sunscreen.

Rather than sun protection factor (SPF), which is the ranking system for protection offered by sunscreen, UV clothing is classified according to ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). UPF differs from SPF in that it refers to the amount of UV radiation that is allowed to pass through a fabric, rather than through a physical or chemical sunblock.

UPF is grouped into three categories:

  • 15 or 20: Good protection
  • 25, 30 or 35: Very good protection
  • 40, 50 or 50+: Excellent protection.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a UPF of at least 30 for adequate sun shielding (2010). Wash-in protection is also available through special detergents. These products increase fabric’s UPF rating; protection lasts through multiple washings.


DermNet NZ. (2006). Sun protective clothing. Retrieved July 11, 2010, from

The Skin Cancer Foundation. (2010). Protective clothing: Get in on the trend. Retrieved July 11, 2010, from