Most people reading this blog know they should put on sunscreen to protect themselves from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays before heading outside. However, to maximize your protection from the sun, you need to wear Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing.
Elena Green, a mom from Amherst, MA, likes using UPF clothing for her son, especially when they are out at the pool or at the beach. “I always apply sunscreen,” she said, “but this is more convenient. And the rash guards dry quickly, so you don’t have your child sitting in an uncomfortable wet shirt.”
According to a study quoted by the American Academy of Dermatology Association, most people apply just 25% to 50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen. Even diligent sunscreen users may miss spots. And, even if you applied the correct amount and didn’t miss any spots, sunscreen may rub off and it needs to be applied every 2 hours. Given sunscreen’s limitations, wearing UPF-rated clothing just makes sense.
How UPF Clothing Works
Pageant contestants have platforms– an issue or cause that they champion throughout their reign. Smith’s platform is skin cancer prevention and awareness. As part of her platform, Smith’s goal is to install sunscreen dispensers at parks and playgrounds. She placed her first sunscreen dispenser at Northside Park Imagination Fun Station in her hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and she hopes to place more dispensers around the state. She wants to cover school playgrounds to provide sun protection for children at recess.
Smith’s platform has also led her to promote Mississippi Senate Bill 2213 (2017), which would prohibit tanning bed use by people under age 18. Current Mississippi law allows children as young as 14 to use tanning beds. “Young teenagers aren’t thinking about the potential harm from tanning,” Smith says. “If I hadn’t already had skin cancer at that age, I might have wanted to try it.”
Unfortunately, MS Senate Bill 2213 didn’t get out of committee in 2017. Smith would like to see senators reintroduce and pass the bill. This law could make a significant difference in skin cancer rates in Mississippi. Avoiding tanning – especially from tanning beds – is a key component of melanoma prevention. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “Just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of developing skin cancer (melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67%, and basal cell carcinoma by 29%).”
A Creative Way to Increase Awareness
All clothing protects your skin from light and other outdoor elements. But some clothing gives more protection than others. A thin, white cotton tee shirt might have an UPF rating of 5. That shirt would allow 1/5th of the sun’s rays hit your skin. When that same cotton tee shirt gets wet, its UPF rating would be even lower, probably a 3.
Clothing that offers more UPF protection will have fabric that is tightly woven – especially synthetic fabrics like Lycra, which can be woven more tightly than cotton or linen.
Thicker, heavier fabric allows less light through, and darker colors absorb more light before it can get to the skin underneath. Manufacturers may also treat fabric with chemicals or dyes that absorb UV light to increase its UPF rating.
Where to Find UPF Clothing
The great news is that clothing retailers offer UPF clothing in a wide variety of styles and price points.
One reliable source of recommendations is the Skin Cancer Foundation, which offers a Product Finder on its website. This foundation offers a Seal of Recommendation for sunscreen and other sun protective products, including clothing.
At Polka Dot Mama, we recommend starting your search at:
Factors That Affect UPF Protection
It’s worth noting that as fabric stretches, it becomes thinner, which allows more UV radiation through. So if you are debating between sizes, pick the looser one that you can wear without stretching the fabric to its limit.
Another thing to keep in mind is how much of your body is covered by the clothing. If your bikini or swim briefs have a UPF 50 rating, that’s great, but you will need to add more clothing to get adequate sun protection. Time to find a rash guard that matches your suit!
A fabric’s condition also affects its UPF rating. A fabric can fray as it ages, and the fraying will allow more UV radiation in. Fading is another concern with older clothing. The UPF protection provided by darker colors only works if those colors stay dark.
You may want to choose clothing made from synthetic, quick drying fabric, because many fabrics become less effective at blocking UV radiation when they get wet.
Finally, if you’re looking for UPF clothing designed for hiking or other non-water activities, check for strategic mesh or vents that will enable you to keep cool while still protecting your skin from UV rays.
Behind the Numbers
Just like SPF, higher UPF numbers mean more protection. While SPF only measures sunscreen’s effectiveness against UVB rays, UPF measures how clothing can protect you from UVA and UVB radiation.
The UPF number indicates how much of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays can get through the clothing to your skin. The UPF number is the denominator. For example, a shirt with a UPF rating of 10 allows 1/10 of the UV radiation to get to your skin underneath.
A shirt with a UPF rating of 50 allows only 1/50th of the UVA and UVB radiation to pass through– it’s blocking at least 98% of UV radiation.
In 2001, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) provided technical standards for testing and rating UV-protective fabrics. When shopping for UPF clothing, you can look for the following levels of protection:
- Good protection: UPF 15 – 24
- Very good protection: UPF 25 – 39
- Excellent protection: UPF 40 – 50+
Just as with sunscreen, higher UPF clothing may cost a little more, but it will offer more protection. How much is it worth to you to avoid melanoma?