Sun Protection From Your Clothes?
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Sun Protection From Your Clothes?

According to the American Cancer Society, most of the million-plus cases of skin cancer diagnosed annually in the United States are sun related. One way to protect yourself from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation is to use sunscreen, but clothing can give you UV protection with staying power.

When it comes to shielding you from UV radiation, not all apparel is created equal. You need to know how to select a UV-safe wardrobe, whether it's from your closet or from specially made clothing.

Why Do You Need Protection?

Despite the overwhelming brightness of summer days, only about 48% of sunlight is visible to your eyes. An additional 46% is invisible infrared radiation. The remaining 6% consists of two types of invisible ultraviolet radiation—UVA and UVB.

UV radiation is the dangerous component of sunlight. UVB causes sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer. UVA also is involved in sunburn and skin cancer. Although you are more susceptible to damage from UV radiation if you are light-skinned or you live at higher altitudes or near the equator, no one is immune to harm from UV radiation.

And for those who try and stay out of the sun completely, if you have less than fifteen minutes a day of sun exposure, you will need extra vitamin D, because sun exposure is the primary source of this vitamin.

A New Standard in Sun Protection

There are three ways to protect yourself from UV radiation: block it, absorb it, or reflect it away. Sunscreens primarily block or absorb UV radiation, but clothing can protect you all three ways. The fabric blocks, the color absorbs or reflects, and special chemical treatments also absorb UV radiation; some even convert it into harmless visible light. Unfortunately, there currently is no UV protection rating system for clothing similar to the familiar SPF system for sunscreens, although there will be soon.

Trade associations such as the American Sun Protection Association, and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) are in the process of developing testing and labeling standards for products ranging from sunglasses to serapes. These ratings will use the term UPF (ultraviolet protective factor) to describe a product's UV-stopping ability.

According to Harvey Shakowski of the AATCC, there will be several differences between the UPF ratings for clothing and the SPF system.

  • Best Case/Worst Case
  • The SPF system is based on a best-case scenario--that you will follow the instructions and put the sunscreen on twenty minutes to a half-hour before you go out, that you will put plenty on, will not miss any spots, and that you will re-apply the product every two hours or if you get wet.
  • On the other hand, UPF ratings will be based on a worst-case scenario and be done on items that have been washed and exposed to UV radiation and are both wet and dry.
  • Relative Protection
  • The SPF system is relative--not everyone gets the same protection from a product with an SPF of 10. This is because SPF is based on the amount of time it would take for protected skin to burn compared to unprotected skin.

    For example, if you burn in 20 minutes with no protection, a sunscreen with an SPF of 10 will give you 200 minutes in the sun before you burn. Another person, who takes 40 minutes to burn without protection, would get 400 minutes of protection from the same SPF 10 sunscreen. To get 400 minutes of UV protection, a person who burns in 20 minutes with no protection would have to use a sunscreen with an SPF of 20. Finally, the SPF system is only approved by the US Food and Drug Administration ( FDA) for rating sunscreens in terms of their ability to protect against UVB.
  • UPF ratings, however, are not relative. They will be based on standardized measurements of a product's ability to block UV radiation. Whether you burn quickly or slowly will not be a determining factor in a product's UPF rating.
  • Blocking, Absorbing, and Transmitting
  • While sunscreens are rated according to how well they block or absorb UV radiation, Shakowski says, "UPF is based on transmittance. That is, clothing and other products will be tested to determine how much UV, both A and B, they let through."

What to Do Until UPF Ratings for Clothing Are Available

Andrew Franklin of Mile High Textiles in Denver, CO gives these general rules for selecting clothes to keep out UV radiation:

  • Tight weaves are better than loose weaves (if you can see through it, UV can get through it).
  • Polyester is better than cotton.
  • Dark colors are better than light colors.
  • Dry clothing is better than wet clothing.

Obviously, dark, tightly woven polyester is not something you are likely to wear out in the hot sun. And if your clothing is so uncomfortable that you take it off, it doesn't matter how much protection it would have given you. Although some sun-protective clothing is already available, it is difficult to know what you are getting because testing and labeling standards are still being established.

Leslie Labhard of the Textile Research and Testing Lab at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California says, "high-tech sportswear and children's wear are the first products you are most likely to see UPF labels on." These products will be lightweight and cool, as well as UV protective. In the meantime, Labhard recommends using "garment design" to get UV protection. Her more practical suggestions include:

  • Wear loose-fitting garments in light colors.
  • Choose outfits with long sleeves and long pant legs and collars to get as much protection as possible.
  • Always wear a hat, because your face and head get so much sun exposure.

For hats, Labhard suggests:

  • A hat made with a light colored material on the outside to reflect UV radiation and keep you cooler, and a darker lining on the brim to prevent UV radiation from reflecting on your face
  • A wide brim of at least three inches
  • No hats or clothing made of netting, mesh, or other loose weaves because they offer little or no UV protection

The right clothing can help guard you, stylishly and comfortably, from the dangers of UV radiation. With carefully chosen clothing, you can reduce the chance of UV damage to your skin and not worry about the need to reapply sunscreen.


American Academy of Dermatology

American Cancer Society


BC Cancer Agency

Canadian Cancer Society


Bauer, J, Buttner, P, Wiecker, TS, et al. Effect of sunscreen and clothing on the number of melanocytic nevi in 1,812 German children attending day care. Am J Epidemiol 2005; 161:620.

Lamberg L. Dermatologists call for massive cover-up. JAMA. 1998 May 18;279(18):1426-7.

Skin cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at:

Skin cancer updates. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at:

Last reviewed March 2008 by Marcin Chwistek, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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