It sounds almost too good to be true. Over the past several years, more and more clothing claims to have built-in protection from the sun’s potentially harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. From swimsuits and rash guards to hats, shirts, and shorts, clothing manufacturers are joining the effort to help protect skin from sun damage. When it comes to shielding yourself from UV radiation, though, not all apparel is created equal. Understanding how to select a UV-safe wardrobe is key. 

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 in the form of invisible infrared radiation. The remaining 6% consists of 2 types of invisible ultraviolet radiation: 

  1. UVA (long wavelength rays)
    UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin, causing premature aging, wrinkling, eye damage (cataracts), and contributing to the development of skin cancer. UVA rays are not as intense as UVB rays, but are more prevalent, and can penetrate through clouds and glass. 

    As a side note, most tanning booths emit UVA rays that are as much as 12 times that of the sun. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, “People who use tanning salons are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. According to recent research, first exposure to tanning beds in youth increases melanoma risk by 75 percent.” 

  2. UVB (short wavelength rays)
    UVB rays primarily impact the top layer of skin, called the epidermis. It causes sunburn, and potentially leads to skin cancer. In the United States, UVB rays are most prevalent between 10 AM and 4 PM, from April to October, but can burn or damage your skin year round especially when reflected off of ice or snow. UVB rays are not able to penetrate glass very well.

UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic light spectrum found in light that reaches the earth from the sun. It is considered the dangerous component of sunlight. Although you are more susceptible to damage if you are light-skinned, or you live at higher altitudes or near the equator, no one is immune to harm from UV radiation. 

On the flip side, sun exposure is the primary source of vitamin D, which helps promote teeth and bone health, as well as immunity from several conditions. If you have less than 15 minutes a day of sun exposure, you will need extra vitamin D from your diet. If you do not get enough vitamin D in your diet, talk to your doctor about whether you should take a supplement.

A Standard in Sun Protection: Ultraviolet Protection Factor

Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a rating system that measures how well sunscreen protects you from harmful UV rays. In addition, there is a rating system for clothing known as the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). In general, there are 3 ways to shield yourself from UV radiation: 

  1. Block it.
  2. Absorb it.
  3. Reflect it away. 

While sunscreen primarily blocks or absorbs UV radiation, specially-treated clothing protects you in all 3 ways. The fabric blocks, the color reflects, and chemical treatments absorb the UV radiation. The UPF number indicates how much of the sun's UV radiation is absorbed. A fabric rating of 50 means that only 1/50th of the sun's UV rays will pass through the clothing. Thus, the fabric reduces your skin's exposure to UV radiation, only allowing 2% of UV rays to get through. 

UPF protection is broken down as follows: 

  • Good protection: 15-24 UPF
  • Great protection: 25-39 UPF
  • Excellent protection: 40-50+ UPF

Assembling Your Wardrobe to Guard Against UV Rays

Specially-Treated UPF Clothing to Protect Against the Sun

Obviously, dark, tightly woven polyester is not something you are likely to wear in the hot sun. If your clothes are so uncomfortable that you take them off, they will not protect you at all. Fortunately, there are clothes that are comfortable and designed to protect you from the sun. Such clothing is made from fabrics that have less space between threads are treated with chemical UV absorbers, known as colorless dyes. These dyes help prevent some penetration of UVB and UVA rays but also are designed to be lightweight, breathable, and wick sweat away from the skin. 

Clothing is considered sun-protective if it falls within a specific UPF range. Only clothes with a UPF of 15-50+ may be labeled as sun-protective. Note that, like regular clothing, sun-protective clothing can lose its effectiveness over time. Ways that UPF clothing loses its sun protection are: 

  1. Pulling it too tightly or stretching it out.
  2. Becoming damp or wet.
  3. Washing and wearing it repeatedly. 

Regular Clothing to Protect Against the Sun

Even clothing that has not been chemically treated to guard against UV rays can give some protection. Likely, you already have garments in your closet that can help safeguard you from the sun. General guidelines include: 

  • Tight weaves are better than loose weaves (If you can see through it, UV can get through it).
  • Polyester protects more than cotton. A regular cotton t-shirt provides less protection than SPF 15 sunscreen, so be sure to use additional protection if needed.
  • Dark colors are better than light colors.
  • Dry clothing is better than wet clothing.
  • Choose outfits with long sleeves, long pant legs, and collars to get as much protection as possible. Loose clothing helps you stay cooler, even when you are covered up.
  • To shield your face and head from too much sun, always wear a hat with these features:
    • A light colored material on the outside to keep you cool and reflect UV rays, and a darker lining on the brim to prevent UV rays from reflecting onto your face.
    • A brim at least 3 inches wide.
    • No netting, mesh, or other loose weaves that offer little or no UV protection. 

The right clothing can help protect you, stylishly and comfortably, from the dangers of UV radiation. With carefully chosen clothing, you can reduce the chance of long-term UV damage to your skin.

If you need help with sun safety or sunscreen suggestions, Dr. Michael Simpson of Dublin Family Medicine can answer all of your questions. You can call the practice at (540) 674-4560, or schedule an appointment online via the button below. He is currently welcoming new patients.

Book An Appointment Online with Dr. Michael Simpson