Sun Protective Clothing

Written by Kimberly Holland | Published on October 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on October 10, 2014

Sun Protective Clothing

Clothing and hats are among the simplest and most effective ways to guard your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. They provide a physical block between your skin and the sunlight. Unlike sunscreen, you won’t have to worry about reapplying!

In recent years, clothing manufacturers have begun adding chemicals and additives to clothing during the production process to further boost the sun-protective factor.

High-Tech Sun Protection

More and more clothing and outdoor companies are carrying garments promoting an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). These clothes are treated with colorless dyes or chemical UV absorbers that block both ultraviolet-A (UVA) and ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays. UPF is similar to the sun protection factor (SPF) that is used on cosmetics and sunscreens. SPF measures only how much ultraviolet-B (UVB) is blocked and doesn’t measure UVA.

UPF Ratings

The American Society for Testing and Materials developed standards for labeling garments as sun-protective. A UPF of 30 or higher is necessary for the product to be given the Skin Cancer Foundation’s seal of recommendation. UPF ratings break down as follows:

  • Good: indicates clothes with a UPF of 15 to 24
  • Very Good: indicates clothes with a UPF of 25 to 39
  • Excellent: indicates clothes with a UPF of 40 to 50

A UPF rating of 50 indicates the fabric will allow 1/50th — or about 2 percent — of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun to pass through to your skin. The higher the UPF number, the less light reaches your skin. 

Factors That Determine Sun Protection

All clothing disrupts UV radiation, even if only in small amounts. When determining a piece of clothing’s UPF, several factors are taken into consideration. The same factors can be used by anyone to determine if a regular piece of clothing is efficient at blocking UV rays.

Dyes

Dark-colored clothing is better than lighter shades, but the real blocking power comes from the type of dye used to color the fabric. The higher the concentration of certain premium UV-blocking dyes, the more rays they disrupt.

Fabric

Fabrics that aren’t very effective at blocking UV rays unless treated with an added chemical include:

  • cotton
  • rayon
  • flax
  • hemp

Fabrics that are better at blocking the sun include:

  • polyester
  • nylon
  • wool
  • silk

Stretch

Clothing that stretches may have less UV protection than clothing that doesn't stretch.

Treatments

Clothing manufacturers may add chemicals that absorb UV light to clothing during the manufacturing process. Laundry additives, such as “optical brightening agents” and UV-disrupting compounds, can increase a garment’s UPF rating.

Weave

Loosely woven fabrics provide less protection than tightly woven fabrics. To see how tight the weave on a piece of clothing is, hold it up to a light. If you can see light through it, the weave may be too loose to be effective at blocking the sun’s rays.

Weight

The heavier the fabric, the better it is at blocking UV rays.

Wetness

Dry fabric provides more protection than wet fabric. Wetting a fabric reduces its effectiveness by as much as 50 percent.

High-UPF Clothing

Recognizing the need for a variety of sun-protective clothing options, retailers are carrying greater numbers of clothing styles with high UPFs.

Some companies use a trademarked name to denote their sun-protective clothing. For example, Columbia’s high-UPF clothing is called “Omni-Shade.” The company North Face simply notes the UPF in each garment’s description. Parasol is a brand that specializes in 50+ UPF resort wear for women and girls.

Shirts

A regular white cotton T-shirt has UPF between 5 and 8. It allows almost one-fifth of UV radiation to pass through to your skin. Better T-shirt options include:

To boost air circulation and help you stay cool, some tightly constructed UPF garments use vents or holes. Others may be constructed with moisture-wicking fabric that helps pull sweat away from the body.

Pants or Shorts

Pants with a high UPF are a great way to protect your skin while you work, play, or relax. If you wear these shorts you still should apply sunscreen to the uncovered portion of your legs. Options include:

Swimwear

Swimsuits made with UV-protective, chlorine-resistant material block at least 98 percent of UV rays. High-UPF swimsuit retailers include:

Hats

Hats with a wide brim or a piece of fabric that drapes over the neck reduce the amount of exposure that delicate facial and neck skin must endure. Wearing one while outside will help reduce your UV exposure. Options include:

Making Your Clothes High-UPF

If adding sun-protective clothing to your wardrobe is too expensive, or your children are growing too quickly to invest in clothes they won’t be able to wear in a few months, a sun-protective colorless additive may be a great alternative to buying new clothes. For example, SunGuard Detergent, a UV-blocking additive that is added to your laundry during a wash cycle, gives clothing an SPF factor of 30. The additive lasts up to 20 washes.

Many detergents contain OBAs (or “optical brightening agents”). Repeated laundering with these detergents will boost a garment’s UV protection.

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