WHAT IS SUN-SAFE CLOTHING?
What’s the best way to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays (UVR), given that we need to work, travel, and sometimes play outside? Clothing is the most basic and generally the best means of sun protection. Not all clothing is equal, however, and some of it isn’t actually very good at protecting us. So, what makes a piece of clothing sun-safe?
The sun damage done to every exposed part of your body is cumulative over your lifetime, continually adding to your risks of premature skin aging and skin cancer. So, to put it simply, the more skin you cover, the better. A long-sleeved shirt covers more skin than a T-shirt, especially if it has a high neckline or collar that shields the back of the neck; long pants cover more skin than shorts. A wide-brimmed hat protects more of the face than a baseball cap, and close-fitting wraparound sunglasses protect more of the area around the eyes than small lenses do. Synthetic fibers such as polyester, lycra, nylon, and acrylic are more protective than bleached cottons, and shiny or lustrous semi-synthetic fabrics like rayon reflect more UV than do matte ones, such as linen, which tend to absorb rather than reflect UV.
The more vivid the color, the greater the protection; a bright yellow shirt is more protective than a pale one. But even a pale fabric can offer good protection if the weave, material, weight, etc. are effective at keeping out UV.
Though loosely evaluating fabric content, color, weight and weave by eye are helpful at sizing up UV protection, it is difficult to pinpoint just how protective a piece of clothing is simply by looking at it. Holding it up to the light helps show how much light passes through, but this isn’t ideal, because the human eye sees visible light but not UV radiation.2
One solution is to choose garments with UPF labels.
UPF, a concept originally standardized in Australia in 1996, stands for ultraviolet protection factor, which quantifies how effectively a piece of clothing shields against the sun. The label means the fabric has been tested in a laboratory and consumers can be confident about the listed level of protection. It is based on the content, weight, color, and construction of the fabric, and indicates how much UV can penetrate the fabric. For instance, a shirt with a UPF of 50 allows just 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to reach your skin. This would provide excellent sun protection, in contrast to a thin white cotton T-shirt, which has a UPF of about , which allows 1/5th of the sun’s UV through — even more when wet. In studies done in Australia, lycra/elastane fabrics were the most likely to have UPFs of 50 or higher, followed by nylon and polyester.
Today, systems for testing and determining UPF are similar around the world. In many countries, including the US, the ASTM International (formerly called the American Society for Testing and Materials) criteria for UPF assessment are used; UPF labels in the US often state that an item meets ASTM International standards.
Does all of this mean that everyone should specifically buy UPF-tested/UPF-labeled clothing, which most often carries a brand name? Is it so superior to everyday clothing that it is worth the extra expense and trouble to find? Not necessarily. Some items of clothing, such as denims and corduroys, are among the most sun-protective of all garments, UPF labels or not. However, a specially made high-UPF shirt, say, with long sleeves and a double layer of fabric at the shoulders — a high UV exposure area — might be constructed with a lightweight material that gives the wearer superior comfort and coolness as well as added sun safety. And the UPF label always adds a measure of certainty.
PICCOLI PRINCIPI TIPS
Remember, sun-protective clothing doesn’t have to be boring: it can be light and bright and fashionable and fun. And when chosen and used correctly, it’s the best form of sun protection you can find.