Clothing is the single most effective form of sun protection. It is our first line of defense against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.
Nearly 3.7 million skin cancers are diagnosed in the US annually, and the vast majority of them are caused by solar UV radiation (UVR). UVR also causes up to 90 percent of the visible changes commonly attributed to aging, such as wrinkles, brown spots, and sagging skin. Fortunately, clothing can absorb or block much of this radiation.
What’s in Your Closet?
You probably already have clothes that offer excellent UV protection. When choosing the ideal attire for sun safety, consider the following factors:
Tightness of Weave or Knit: Tightly woven or closely knitted fabrics, such as denim and wool, literally have smaller holes between the threads. They keep out more UVR than fabrics with a loose or open weave, like lace. However, clothes should not feel tight on your body: snug-fitting garments can stretch, exposing more skin to the sun.
Type of Fiber: Synthetic and semi-synthetic fibers (such as polyester and rayon) offer the greatest sun protection. Refined and bleached cottons or crepe offer the least. And glossy fabrics, such as satin, reflect more UVR away from the skin than do matte fabrics, like linen.
Thickness or Density: Thin, lightweight materials, including some silks and bleached cottons, let in more UV light than do heavier, denser fabrics such as corduroy.
Color: Dark or bright colors, like red or black, absorb more UVR than white or pastel shades, stopping the rays before they reach the skin. The more intense the hue, the better the UV defense.
An Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) label: A UPF label will help you identify sun-protective garments; the number on the label indicates what fraction of the sun’s rays can penetrate the fabric.
You can mix and match the different kinds of fabrics with UV-screening features to achieve effective sun protection.
While clothes made of UV-screening fabrics go a long way towards protecting your skin, the face and neck receive the most sun exposure and are particularly susceptible to the two most common forms of skin cancer, basal and squamous cell carcinoma. Furthermore, people with melanoma (the deadliest skin cancer) of the head and neck are almost twice as likely to die from the disease as patients with melanomas on other parts of the body.
Hats are the head’s first line of defense. The Skin Cancer Foundation advises everyone to wear hats with a brim that extends three inches or more all the way around to shade the face, neck, ears, and even the top of the shoulders.
Sunglasses are also essential. Over time, solar UVR can cause or contribute to conditions ranging from cataracts and macular degeneration to ocular melanomas and other skin cancers. Five to 10 percent of all skin cancers, in fact, arise on the eyelids.
Look for sunglasses that cover the eyes, eyelids, and as much of the surrounding areas as possible. They should come with a tag verifying that they block 99-100 percent of all UV radiation.
Out and About
Put your knowledge of dressing for sun success to use every day by following these guidelines:
As with sunglasses and hats, the more skin you cover, the better. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants simply provide more protection than T-shirts and shorts. Many sportswear manufacturers offer fashionable, high-UPF staples such as cargo shorts, polo shirts, and summer dresses designed to keep you cool, dry, and sun-safe during exercise.
Dressing sun-safely is a year-round activity. But in certain seasonal locales even greater precautions must be taken.
When you’re at the beach on a clear summer day, be aware that certain surfaces reflect the sun’s UV rays, allowing them to hit your skin and eyes twice. Sand reflects an extra 15 percent of UV light, and water, up to 10 percent.
Loose-fitting tunics and sarongs help shield the arms and legs; scarves and wraps can cover the neck, upper chest, and shoulder area.
By the Water
Look for high-UPF swimwear, and choose styles that cover more skin, like one-piece suits and long trunks. For extended stays in the water, full-body wetsuits are an option. Normally, wet clothing allows much more UV to penetrate; for example, the UPF of a white summer cotton T-shirt decreases to only 3 to 4 when the fabric gets wet.
In the Snow
Many people forget about sun protection in cold weather venues. But ice and snow reflect about 80 percent of the sun’s UV light, almost doubling the intensity of exposure. Both snow and strong wind can wear away sunscreen, reducing its effectiveness.
Again, hats are important, and knitted winter hats made of high-tech, man-made materials will keep you comfortable as well as sun-protected. Wraparound sunglasses with UV-protective side shields will cut glare and block the most UVR.
Clothing, sunscreen, and sunglasses are all essential parts of a comprehensive sun protection program. Following these simple tips will enable you to maximize sun safety year-round, without sacrificing style or comfort.
Ultraviolet Protection Factor
Many manufacturers today identify their sun-protective garments with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) label, which indicates what fraction of the sun’s ultraviolet rays can penetrate the fabric. A shirt with a UPF of 50, for example, lets just 1/50th of the sun’s UVR reach the skin, compared to, say, an everyday white cotton T-shirt, which has a UPF of only about 5.
National criteria have been developed for UPF testing; a UPF label may state that the item meets the standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials.
In addition, sun protection products that pass the review of a volunteer Photobiology Committee may receive the Seal of Recommendation, The Skin Cancer Foundation’s stamp of safety and efficacy. Eligible clothing must have a UPF of 30 or higher, and acceptable test results according to the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists method or AS/NZS Standard. For hats, a minimum brim width of 3 inches is required.
You can increase your clothes’ UPF by washing a laundry additive like Sun Guard’s Rit® into them. The product’s active ingredient, the sunscreen Tinosorb®, increases clothes’ sun-protective abilities for up to 20 washings. A laundry additive can raise the UPF of an everyday white cotton T-shirt to about 30.
Read The Skin Cancer Foundation's Prevention Guidelines.
Learn more about The Skin Cancer Foundation's Seal of Recommendation.
Mona Gohara, MD
Warwick Morison, MD, MB
Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD
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