Everyone needs protection from harmful ultraviolet radiation year-round, but it's even more important in the summer. While sunscreen remains the most popular method of blocking UV rays, sun-protective clothing is gaining in popularity.

The question is, do they really work? If so, for how long? Could they replace the sunscreen? What are the best options? Let's expose some of the answers to these burning questions!

UVR (Ultraviolet Radiation) Types

Ultraviolet radiation or UVR is broken up into three types based on wavelengths. Almost all UVA and some UVB rays reach the Earth, while UBC rays are completely absorbed by the ozone layer.

Excessive exposure to UVB is associated with premature skin aging, skin cancer, and eye damage that can potentially lead to blindness.

illustration of how UV rays affect the skin


What is UPF?

Ultraviolet protection factor or UPF matters in the discussion of sun-protective clothing. The UPF rating indicates how much UVA and UVB radiation a fabric will allow to reach the skin; for instance, it may allow two percent to penetrate the skin and block 98 percent of the UVA and UVB rays.

UPF is different from the sun-protective factor or SPF we know from sunscreen. SPF measures only UVB rays and is based on the time it takes for UVB-exposed skin to sunburn. For instance, an SPF 20 sunscreen protects the skin 20 times longer.

woman in long sleeved swimming top and bikini bottoms on the beach


Are Sun-Protective Clothes Effective?

Yes, if they are made from a fabric with UPF 30 or higher. A UPF fabric between 30 and 49 is considered "very good" protection, while a UPF over 50 offers "excellent" protection.

In order to qualify for the Seal of Recommendation from the Skin Cancer Foundation, a fabric must have a UPF of at least 30.

mother and children in sun protection clothes playing on the beach


Choosing Sun-Protective Clothing

In addition to looking for fabrics with UPF ratings of 30 or higher, consider a few other things when shopping for sun protective apparel.

Dark and bright colors absorb UV rays rather than allowing them to penetrate the skin and therefore offer better protection than lighter colors. Denim, canvas, wool, and synthetic fabrics offer more protection from UV rays than a thin or loose woven fabric. Unbleached cotton and shiny fabrics are very protective against UV radiation.

man outside in summer in long sleeved white shirt


Factors That Reduce UV Protection

Regardless of the UPF, clothes lose some ability to protect against UV rays if they become wet or stretched.

When fabric stretches, the distance between fibers increases, allowing more light to penetrate the clothes and reach the skin. For this reason, loose-fitting clothes are more protective than tight clothes.

smiling woman in a crochet top on the beach


Do You Still Need To Wear Sunscreen?

Sun-protective clothing can only protect the parts of the skin it is covering. The rest of the body should be protected from UV rays by sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses.

For optimal benefits, apply sunscreen starting from an inch under the ends of the sleeves and pant legs and on all exposed skin.

woman in see-through summer top applying sunscreen


Who Can Benefit Most From Sun-Protective Clothes?

Although excess sun exposure is harmful to everyone, some people have an increased risk of sunlight-related complications.

People who spend a lot of time in the sun, those who have lighter skin, and those 50 years or older are more likely to experience complications from UV radiation. Individuals who take certain antibiotics, birth control pills, or use certain cosmetics are more sensitive to UV rays and therefore need more protection.

red haired woman with sun hat


Does UPF Wash Out Of The Clothes?

Sun-protective clothes are created either by using a UPF fabric or by using special chemical treatments and dyes. In both cases, the UV protection diminishes over time, but UPF fabric tends to last longer.

Nike recommends replacing sun-protective clothes every two to three years. Another option is to buy laundry products designed to boost UPF.

father and daughter doing laundry


Do Sun Protective Clothes Offer More Protection Than Sunscreen?

Sun-protective clothes with a UPF 50 or higher offer better protection than many sunscreens available on the market. However, clothes almost never entirely cover the body.

For this reason, doctors recommend using a combination of sun-protective clothes and sunscreen. Hats and sunglasses let you cover the parts of the body that both lotion and clothing do not.

smiling little girl in sun hat and sunglasses


Other UPF Considerations

If you're in the market for sun-protective clothing, make the most of your purchases. Look for clothes that offer more coverage, like long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and skirts. Many of the items for sale will be fabrics that breathe, so you don't get too hot.

Cover the rest of the skin with sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and choose a pair of sunglasses labeled UV 400. Consider buying a hat with a wrap-around brim at least three inches wide to cover your face, ears, neck, and upper back.

smiling woman in light summery linen dress and sun hat


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