Sun shirts, rash guards, UV tops … whatever you call them, they’re growing in popularity among surfers and swimmers. If you’re already using sunscreen, should you be wearing sun-protective clothing, too?
The easy answer—from the American Academy of Dermatology and Carilion Clinic Family Medicine provider Mark Greenawald, M.D.—is “Yes!”
More complicated is the question of how to know what clothing to choose among the different terms they use and the claims they make.
UPF, not SPF
As we know, sunscreen is measured by SPF—the sun protection factor that indicates how well it protects against UVB rays (choose SPF 30 or higher). Sun-protective fabrics are tested to measure their UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor, which indicates how much ultraviolet radiation (UV-R) will pass through the fabric when dry. UPF effectiveness decreases when the fabric is wet.
A higher rating offers more protection. The highest official UPF rating is 50, although many fabrics do rate higher and are marketed as “50+.” The rating means that only 1/50th (2%) of UV-R rays will pass through the fabric.
Who Should Wear UPF Clothing?
The answer to this question is just as easy: everyone!
- Kids – to protect their skin and to help establish lifelong healthy habits
- Grownups – to prevent the deadly long-term, cumulative effects of sun damage
- Seniors – because age and many medications can increase photosensitivity
And that goes for everyone, no matter how much time you spend outside:
- Outdoor enthusiasts – to minimize exposure over time if you get your exercise on trails, on the water or on ballfields
- Outdoor avoiders – to prevent dangerous sunburn or sun poisoning from a day at the beach if you typically exercise at home or in the gym
Which UPF Clothing To Wear
The Federal Trade Commission monitors UPF claims, so if you see clothing marketed as “sun-protective,” it will have a UPF rating of at least 15 when dry. Items labeled with 50+ UPF are easily found online, at retail shops and from outfitters.
“Regular” clothing can also offer excellent sun protection, even without having a UPF label. Denim jeans have an estimated UPF of approximately 1,700—but you wouldn’t want to wear them to the beach! However, a typical white t-shirt is rated at only 5.
Every fabric performs differently:
- Polyester, nylon and other advanced fabrics are the most effective at reflecting UV rays
- Wool and silk are moderately effective
- Cotton, rayon, flax and hemp are the least effective
Dr. Greenawald suggests another comparison: the cost of sun-protective clothing compared to the cost of sunscreen.
“While there is usually a cost differential between regular shirts and UPF-labeled products,” he said, “when one considers that the average sunscreen costs somewhere between $6-12, a sun shirt that will last years—and that you don't have to worry about ‘reapplying’ after 2 hours, after swimming, or after sweating—begins to look like a good bargain indeed.”
Don’t Forget Your Eyes and Ears
Wide-brimmed hats are very effective in covering your face, ears and neck, while baseball caps and straw gardening hats with holes are less effective.
The bottom line, from the American Academy of Dermatology, is to seek out the shade, regularly apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant 30+ SPF sunscreen; and wear the following:
- Lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and pants – for the most protection, choose a tight weave, darker colors and, if possible, a UPF number on the label
- Sunglasses with UV protection – look for large-framed or wraparound lenses that offer UV protection
- A wide-brimmed hat – choose one that will protect your ears, head and neck as well as your face (sorry baseball fans, your favorite cap isn’t enough)
- Shoes that cover your feet – apply sunscreen if you’re going barefoot or wearing sandals or flip-flops