Beyond SPF: Sun-protective Clothing

Lifespan Blog Team
SPF Clothing Facts

For people with sensitive skin, the summer sun’s rays can be troubling. Many opt for high-SPF sunscreen, and some may prefer to cover up further with clothing. But there is a new option in stores for those prone to sunburn: clothing with added sun protection, otherwise known as Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing. UPF clothes were originally standardized in Australia and are now making their way to other parts of the world. This sun blocking solution adds a new layer of protection against the summer rays.

Sunscreen and clothes vs UPF clothing

SPF, the rating found in sunscreen and cosmetics, stands for sun protection factor. The rating for clothing is measured in UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor. Just like SPF, sun protective clothing has a numerical grade of the effectiveness of a UVA and UVB block, ranging from 15 to 50+. The rating is typically based on the content, weight, color, and construction of the fabric, and indicates how much UV can penetrate the material. Clothes made using a close stitch and dense fiber offer more protection; some are pre-treated with a UV-inhibiting ingredient that adds to the UPF rating. Most dermatologists recommend clothing with a UPF of 50, which allows only two percent of UV rays to penetrate clothing. For reference, a white cotton t-shirt has a UPF of five to eight, allowing 20 percent of UV radiation to pass through. 

How does it work?

To clarify, all clothing options offer sun protection to some extent. Clothes that offer the most coverage will protect your skin from the sun, but typical summer outfit choices are made with light fabrics, loose weaves, and often expose more skin to the sun; they are not able to provide as much coverage. Specially-made UPF clothing has a close stitch, proper fabric, and is chemically treated with protective agents. A UPF rating is determined by several factors:

Weave – A tightly woven fabric will have a higher UPF rating than a loose one. It lets in a lower percentage of UV rays. 
Fabric – The thicker the fabric, the more protection it will provide. However, during the hot summer months, you won’t want to be wearing thick clothing that will make you feel even warmer. Choose a synthetic fabric that reflects UV light, like nylon or polyester. 
Color – Darker colors protect your skin from UV rays better than lighter colors. In UPF clothing, specially formulated dyes are used to increase the UPF rating.
Chemical treatments – Official UPF clothing may be pre-treated with chemicals like reflective brighteners or UV-boosting additives. 

How long does it last?

Just like sunscreen, the protection provided by this clothing will wear off after some use. UPF clothing lasts approximately 30 to 40 washes; with regular use, the clothing should last about one year. For an extra boost, laundry detergent with UPF protectants are coming on the market and can be used to extend the life of UPF clothes, or even add a bit of protection to any item of clothing. 

Is it enough to protect my skin without sunscreen?

Dermatologists recommend doing as much as you can to protect your skin from the sun. UPF clothing should be worn in conjunction with sunscreen and a wide brimmed hat to protect your face, neck, and other exposed areas. A sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 is said to block about 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. You should also look for certain buzzwords on sunscreen bottles, like “broad spectrum” and “water-resistant.” Broad spectrum means that the formula will prevent harm from both UVA and UVB rays, while water-resistant options will stay on wet skin about 40-80 minutes after applying.

UPF clothing is best for people who have sensitive skin prone to sunburn, and those who like to exercise outdoors during the summer. The extra layer of protection will keep you at ease while enjoying a sunny summer day.

For more information on skin care and sun protection, check out our blog on Summer Skin Safety

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