Sun Protective Clothing

Sun Protective Clothing

Certain types of clothes can help protect your skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, but the degree of protection depends on a number of factors, including:

  • the amount of skin covered by the cloth
  • the clothing’s color
  • the weight of the cloth
  • tightness of the weave
  • type of fiber used.

In general, clothes that offer the best sun protection tend to be more tightly woven, heavier in weight and darker in color. As a result, a black T-shirt offers more protection than a white one, and thick fabrics like velvet will offer more sun protection than ordinary cotton. Because sun protective clothing typically looks identical to regular clothing, look for the special UPF label.

UPF Labels Explained

Most people have heard the term SPF, which stands for Sun Protection Factor. Commonly listed on sunscreen bottles, SPF is a measurement of the amount of time it takes for skin exposed to the sun to become red.

For clothing, however, you’ll find a UPF rating. UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor, and it measures how much UV radiation will penetrate fabric and reach the skin. Essentially, if an item of clothing has a rating of 50, then only one-50th of the UV rays will pass through the clothing to your skin. The fabric itself absorbs the rest.

U.S. guidelines have set the following standards:

  • UPF 15 to 24: good UV protection
  • UPF 25 to 39: very good UV protection
  • UPF 40 to 50 : excellent UV protection.

Keep in mind that UPF can fade over time if it gets too tight, gets stretched out or is repeatedly washed. Similarly, if UPF clothes are at all damp while you’re wearing them, they will be far less effective at blocking UV rays. In fact, wet clothes can lose up to 50 percent of their UPF if they get wet.

To quickly test your clothing yourself, hold it up to the light. If you can see through it, then light can obviously pass through it, meaning harmful UV radiation that causes sunburns and skin damage can also pass through it. As a result, a simple white T-shirt over your swimsuit will do very little to protect your skin from the sun. By contrast, heavy denim offers complete sun protection because no light passes through it.

Sun Protective Clothing versus Ordinary Clothing

Clothing manufacturers have begun to find ways to improve our sun protection options by offering protection not only from sunburn but also from skin cancer.

Unbleached cotton has special pigments within it called lignins. These lignins actually absorb UV rays, keeping them from reaching your skin. Other fabrics, such as high-luster polyesters and satiny silk, naturally reflect radiation regardless of how thin or thick they are.

For other types of clothes, manufacturers may treat them with chemicals that absorb UV rays. While some of these chemicals block both UVA and UVB rays, others are simply chemical sunscreens that help clothing block the sun.

Any clothing labeled as sun protective has a UPF rating of 15-50 according to U.S. standards passed in January 2001. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends wearing clothing with a UPF of at least 30, although a UPF of 50 offers the best sun protection.

Most ordinary clothing, such as lightweight summer fabrics and standard cotton T-shirts, can allow 50 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays to reach your skin when the clothing is dry. However, if the clothing is, for some reason, wet, it will allow 10 to 20 percent more UV rays through.

Do-It-Yourself Sun Protection

You can make some of your own clothing more effective against the sun by using a laundry additive (such as Sun Guard) that increases the UPF of the clothing through 20 washings.

Benefits of Sun Protective Clothing

Skin cancer has become one of the deadliest cancers of our time. With the thinning of the ozone layer, we have less protection from harmful UV rays than ever before. While sunscreen helps prevent sunburn and cancer, it doesn’t offer sun protection that is as strong or beneficial as sun protective clothing.

The sun begins causing damage to skin cells fairly rapidly when it’s exposed. Even within five minutes, minor sunburn can occur. Along with the UVB rays that cause sunburn, the less powerful UVA rays can also cause long-term damage to the skin even without a visible burn.

Doctors recommend that you take measures to protect yourself from the sun, and sunscreen often times is not enough. In addition, most people don’t actually apply enough sunscreen to prevent sunburn, especially if they forget to reapply it throughout the day. Alternately, sun protective clothing can be a much better way to keep your skin safe, especially from a deadly skin cancer.