Does Sun Protective Clothing Really Work? A Dermatologist Weighs In

All clothing that covers skin is somewhat preventative. Sun-protection clothing offers extra protection. But before you put away that sunscreen, read this.

Jacob-Lund/ShutterstockOf course you know you should wear sunscreen, but even if you think you’re good about it, it’s all too easy to make a common sunscreen mistake that ups your risk for sunburn, sun damage, and even skin cancer. Short of hiding indoors all summer, what’s an active, outdoor lover to do?

Sun protection clothing—specially treated garments designed to filter ultraviolet rays—may be the answer. While technically all clothing can be considered sun-protective if it covers up the skin, sun protection clothing carries a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating that’s designed to provide more protection.

Just like SPF in sunscreen, the numbers range for UPF in clothing, in this case from 15 to 50-plus. Some of the UV-protective clothing has a rating based on such factors as fiber density and structure, like thread count per inch, while other items are pre-treated with a UV-inhibiting ingredient.

While sun protective clothing doesn’t mean you never have to wear SPF again, it does go a long way towards protecting your skin. “Protective clothing and broad-rimmed hats are one of the most important steps when it comes to safe sun practices in my opinion,” says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, board-certified dermatologist in New York City and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. “Heavy perspiration, water activities, and incomplete application of sunscreen causes sunscreen products rubbing off and losing their effectiveness, resulting in incomplete sun protection.”

Though Dr. Levin says any fabric can shield from UV radiation, she urges people to take advantage of clothing labeled with a UPF rating, which she believes does the most effective job. She recommends a UPF label of 50, which allows less than 2 percent of UV transmission to come through the clothing. “A white T-shirt is estimated to give a UPF of 5 to 8, which means 20 percent of UV radiation is passing through,” she says.

Dr. Levin recommends Ultracor for its luxe UPF 50 activewear clothing that’s equal parts fashion forward and performance-ready and Mott50 for its lightweight and cute clothing that offers UPF 50.

For anyone who enjoys outdoor sports, like golfing, running, or biking, Dr. Levin recommends the Nike Dri-Fit UV Solar sleeves. “This allows the arms to be protected from UV radiation but has the Dri-Fit technology so it dries quickly.” UPF clothing is ideal for morning workouts or even walking your pup, because you can roll out of bed, pull your UPF top on and walk out the door (after applying sunscreen to your face and other exposed areas).

For those summer days when the water is calling your name, try a rashguard, the traditional garb of surfers. When you wear UPF clothing to the beach or pool, you don’t have to worry about reapplying sunscreen to your arms, chest, shoulders, or back. Plus if you’re active, playing volleyball, surfing, or splashing through the waves, you’ll appreciate the extra coverage. Cabana Life has a super cute limited edition rashguard that benefits Stand Up 2 Cancer.

Another must-have is a broad-rimmed hat. “A 3-inch brimmed hat protects not only the face and top of the head but also the neck, shoulders, and eats. A baseball hat doesn’t protect the shoulders, the ears, or the back of the neck. Many patients often forget to apply sunscreen on the ears,” Dr. Levin says. “For hats, I love Wallaroo—super chic but still broad rimmed. My favorite is the Morgan hat which is a fedora style hat with UPF 50.”

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