Sun Protective Clothing: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 07, 2021
3 min read

Protecting your skin from the sun is extremely important, especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors. Sunscreen is a great way to keep the sun’s rays at bay, but it’s not always enough. Sun protective clothing adds an extra layer of security from harmful UV rays.

When it comes to sun protection, you’ll hear the terms Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) and Sun Protection Factor (SPF) thrown around. They sound similar, but they are not interchangeable.

SPF is a more commonly used word because it’s how the strength of sunscreen is measured. It refers to how long it takes for skin to turn red due to UVB exposure. If you go out into the sun without any sunscreen and you begin to burn after 20 minutes, an SPF 15 sunscreen should offer protection for 15 times longer than your bare skin does.

UPF refers to how much UV radiation, both UVB and UVA, a certain fabric allows to reach your skin. If you’re wearing a fabric that has UPF 50, it will block 98% of harmful rays from the sun. Two percent will pass through the fabric, but this number is minimal.

UPF 50 or more is classified as “excellent protection,” and anything from 30-40 is in the “very good” category.

Not all clothing protects your skin from the sun equally. A lot of factors, like color and fabric, can make clothes more or less safe to wear in the sun.

When it comes to colors, very dark or very bright clothing is best. UPF clothing absorbs UV rays instead of letting them through to the skin, which is why these colors are better than light ones for keeping the skin safe.

The fabric of your clothing plays a big part in its UPF. Fabrics like denim or wool that are tightly woven are better than thin or see-through fabrics. Generally, if you hold a piece of clothing up to a light and can see the light through it, this will give you an accurate idea of how easy it will be for UV rays to make it to your skin.

In addition to how UPF clothing is composed, what the fabric is made of helps determine UPF. Fabrics to look for when shopping for sun protective clothes include unbleached cotton, shiny polyester, satiny silk, and high-tech fabrics. Each of these fabrics either absorb, reflect, or guard against UV rays.

If you can wear something loose, this will increase protection. As tighter clothes stretch, they become less effective and allow more UV rays to pass through the fabric. Similarly, clothes that offer more coverage will help protect your skin from the sun. If you have the option between a short and long-sleeved shirt, go with the long-sleeved option to keep your arms out of the sun.

Clothes designed especially to be worn in the sun will have UPF labels, just like most bottles of sunscreen have SPF labels.

It might seem like any piece of clothing protects you from the sun, and this is true to a certain extent. A typical cotton shirt has a UPF of about 5 because of its loose composition.

Many kinds of normal clothing have tiny holes that let light in, but sun-protective clothing doesn’t. Sun protective clothing often looks and feels like leggings, shirts, and hats that you might wear when you exercise.

It’s easier to put on long pants or throw on a baseball hat than it is to stay on top of applying sunscreen every few hours. Be mindful of the parts of your body that aren’t easily covered from the sun. Your hands, neck, and face, for example, are likely to be exposed even after you put on your UPF clothing.

Sun protective clothing and sunscreen should work hand in hand. If you can comfortably cover your skin with fabrics designed to keep UV rays out, you should. Most of these specially designed clothes have a UPF of 50 or more, so they offer more protection than sunscreen. If you can’t or aren’t equipped to cover your skin, sunscreen is a great alternative.

The best thing you can do for your skin is to wear sun-protective clothing and use sunscreen generously on your exposed skin. Next time you spend a day in the sun, your skin will be protected from harmful rays.