The Ultimate Guide to UV Protective Clothing: Dress for Health!

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Do you have sensitive skin that burns easily?

Are you tired of applying sunscreen every time you spend time outdoors?

Time outdoors in the sun is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. It helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, stimulates vitamin D synthesis, and supports a positive mood. But spending too long in direct sunlight during the hottest parts of the day is harmful. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause painful sunburn, premature skin aging, and even increase your skin cancer risk.

If you think that slathering on sunscreen and staying out of the sun are the only ways to avoid sunburn, think again! UV protection clothing — made from UV protective fabric — may guard against sunburn and skin cancer. It's ideal for babies, children, the elderly, athletes, people with sensitive skin — and everyone else!

In this article, we'll explore how UV protection clothes work and when to wear them. We'll also show you how to pick out the best sun protective clothing and how you can increase the UV protection of your existing wardrobe.

What are UV protective clothes?

UV protective clothing — also known as sun-protective clothing — is designed to keep the sun off your skin all day. It offers broad-spectrum UV protection, helping to prevent sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer.

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Unlike sunscreen, clothes don't wash or rub off or become less effective after a few hours in the sun. If you wear UV protective fabric, you don't need to worry about how much sunscreen you put on and how often you reapply it. UV clothes protect large areas of skin like the chest, arms, legs, and back. It covers areas difficult to reach with sunscreen. Covering your skin may also reduce moisture loss, minimizing your risk of dehydration on hot days.

Wearing UV clothing is one of the easiest ways to be sun safe. If you have young children, putting them in sun protection clothing is much easier than chasing after them to reapply sunscreen every two hours.

When should you wear UV protective clothing?

You can wear UV clothing anytime you're in the sun for a prolonged period — whether you're on the beach, at the pool, playing sports, hiking, or working outside.

You should pay special attention to using UV protection clothes when you're outdoors during the peak hours of 11 am and 4 pm. In addition, keep an eye on the UV index for your area on the WeatherWell app. This tells you how damaging UV radiation is during a specific time of day. The higher the UV index, the greater your risk of sunburn. You should consider wearing protective clothing if the UV index is five or higher.

People wearing hats and UV protective clothes in the sun

However, it's not just the summer sun you have to worry about. UV rays can damage your skin year-round — even on cloudy days.

Factors that increase the risk of sun damage include:

  • Having fair skin and blue eyes
  • Having sensitive skin
  • Living in a sunny, hot climate or at a high altitude
  • Exercising or working outdoors during peak hours
  • Spending prolonged periods near reflective surfaces like water, sand, and snow
  • Taking medication that increases photosensitivity — like tetracycline

If you fall into these categories, UV protection clothing is a must-have.

What is UPF?

UPF — or Ultraviolet Protection Factor — is a rating method used to measure the effectiveness of sun protection clothing, wetsuits, and other UV apparel. UPF tells you what fraction of UVA and UVB radiation can penetrate through the fabric onto your skin.

The higher the UPF number, the more protection the clothing offers.

It's typically divided into three rating categories:

Good protection: UPF 15. This allows 1/15th (or 6%) of the UV radiation present in the environment to filter through to your skin. Anything less than this is not considered UV protective.

Very good protection: UPF 30. This only lets 1/30th of the UV radiation reach your skin.

Excellent protection: UPF 50+ offers the strongest sun protection. It only allows roughly 1/50th — or less — UV transmission.

What's the difference between UPF and SPF?

SPF — Sun Protection Factor — measures the UV protection of sunscreen based on the length of time it takes for your skin to burn in direct sunlight. SPF typically only blocks UVB rays, whereas UPF clothes block out UVA and UVB rays. UVB radiation is responsible for sunburn and skin cancer development. UVA radiation contributes to premature skin aging — it penetrates your skin's dermis. Sun protection clothing offers comprehensive protection.

What makes clothing sun protective?

Shirts, jackets, shorts, pants, hats, bathing suits, and umbrellas are available in UV protective fabric. The fabric, color, density, weave, and flexibility of clothing impact its UPF and make it more — or less — sun protective.

When finding the best UV clothing, these factors make a difference:

Coloring

The color of clothing influences its sun protection capability. Dark colors and bright colors absorb more UV radiation. Light colors and bleached fabrics offer very little sun protection.

Sun-protective clothing is usually treated with dye to make it dark in color.

UV protective fabric

Polyester, nylon, rayon, denim, unbleached cotton, wool, and silk are the best UV-blocking fabrics.

However, synthetic fibers are the most sun protective. Polyester and polyester blends are particularly useful for absorbing UV rays.

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Treatments

Sun-protective clothes are treated with UV-blocking dyes and UV absorbers to improve their UPF rating. There are also colorless dyes that can make the clothes UV-protective without altering the color. These treatments help the fabrics to absorb UV light and protect your skin.

Weave

UV clothing should be tightly woven. The looser the weave of a fabric, the more UV rays are allowed to penetrate onto your skin. When you hold your UV protective fabric to the light, you shouldn't see through it. Polyester is an example of a tight weave fabric.

Density

The denser the fabric, the more UV protection the clothing offers. UV clothes are typically densely woven, thick, and consist of more than one layer.

A woman wearing a hat and UV protective clothes on the beach

Coverage

Sun protective apparel offers more skin coverage than regular clothes and accessories. High necklines, collars, long sleeves, long pants, wide-brimmed hats, and neck flaps give more body coverage.

Investing in sun-protective clothing may be more cost-effective over the long term as it can be worn for years and saves you on sunscreen.

How to find the best UV protective clothing

Not all sun protective clothing is created equal. Luckily, many activewear, surf wear, and swimwear brands offer high-UPF clothing and plenty of options for your needs.

So, what should you look for when choosing the best sun protection clothing?

The first thing to note is the UPF rating of the clothing. Choose UV clothing with a UPF of at least 30. However, a UPF of 50+ is best if you have fair, sensitive skin or spend a lot of time in the sun.

Follow these tips when shopping for the best sun protective clothes:

  • Get clothing that is dark or brightly colored to absorb more UV light. Black, dark blue, red, yellow, and green are good options.
  • Look for quick-drying fabrics as getting fabric wet can reduce the UPF.
  • Find lightweight, breathable garments that aren't tight – this will encourage air circulation and keep you cool in summer.
  • Avoid very porous clothing.
  • Choose loose fits and slightly larger sizes to avoid stretching the fabric and reducing the sun protection. Bigger sizes will also cover more of your skin.
  • Choose clothes with collars, high necklines, and long sleeves to protect more of your skin.

Can you make your clothes sun protective?

Buying new UV clothing can be an expensive exercise. Luckily, you may already own clothes with a naturally high UPF. For example, dark-colored clothing made from denim, corduroy, wool, satin, and polyester can filter UV rays and protect your skin.

You can purchase UV-blocking treatments and UV absorbers that turn regular clothing into sun protective clothing.

Treat t-shirts by adding these products to your regular wash cycle, allowing them to coat the fabric and increase its UV absorption. However, the process needs to be repeated regularly as the protection decreases after several wash cycles.

Dying your clothes can also increase their sun protection. Research shows dying fabric in dark hues significantly increases its UPF. For the best protection, launder your clothes with a UV blocking treatment in addition to coloring the fabric.

Final thoughts

UV protection clothing can prevent sunburn and minimize your risk of skin cancer. Dermatologists agree that covering up with protective clothing should be your first line of defense against the sun!

However, even the best sun protective clothing is only one aspect of sun safety. It’s helpful to use a combination of sunscreen and clothes for maximum protection. Always apply water-resistant sunscreen to your face and other exposed areas. In addition, wear sunglasses, put on a wide-brimmed hat, drink plenty of water, and try to stay in the shade during the hottest times of the day.

July 20, 2022