Spending time outdoors is one of the best things about summer. The same sunny days that are perfect for hiking, biking and paddling, however, also put you at risk for exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with 5.4 million new non-melanoma skin malignancies diagnosed each year—more than all other cancer diagnoses combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Despite the risks, one survey found that just 14.3% of men and 29.9% of women reported regularly wearing sunscreen on their face and exposed skin—and even those who do slather on SPF might not be getting the full benefit of protection.
“Sunscreen provides protection but most people do not apply it properly,” says Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.
The biggest mistakes, Lichtenfeld says, include using too little sunscreen or not re-applying often enough. Wearing long-sleeved shirts, wide-brimmed hats and steering clear of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. can help provide protection from UV rays. Sun-protective clothing can also help.
The Case for Covering Up
It’s harder for the sun to singe skin that is covered up with clothing. While all fabric provides some degree of protection, Peter J. Hauser, PhD, a retired professor of textile engineering at North Carolina State University, explains that tighter weaves and knits, and darker colors, filter out more UV rays than lighter fabrics with a looser weave.
A basic white cotton t-shirt provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of around 10, while denim jeans have an SPF around 1700. Wool, silk and polyester provide the best protection, according to Hauser, who adds, “The construction of the fabric plays a huge role in how protective it is.”
Companies like Solartex Sun Gear, Solumbra, Athleta, Coolibar and Royal Robbins all sell clothing marketed with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) ratings. (See page 32.) Similar to the SPF (sun protection factor) rating on sunscreen, the acronyms indicate that the high-tech fabrics block ultraviolet rays and protect skin from the sun.
Like sunscreen, UPF labels are used in conjunction with numbers—like UPF 50—to denote the percentage of ultraviolet radiation that can penetrate the fabric. Clothing marketed as UPF 50 keeps out 98% of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, for example. The higher the number, the more protection the fabric offers.
Royal Robbins started selling UPF-rated clothing in the 1990s, and product line coordinator Katelyn Johnson says that sun-protective offerings have become increasingly popular as awareness about sun safety has increased. The company’s Expedition collection features fabrics with a UPF of 40 to 50-plus, but most of the company’s products offer sun protection without the use of special chemical UPF finishes, Johnson notes. “The UPF rating depends on the weight, construction and color of the fabric, and not all colors are rated the same,” she says.
While some fabrics offer UPF simply because of their color and weave, Hauser notes that most of the clothing marketed for sun protection has chemicals infused into it to provide added protection to a garment.
“The process works similar to dyeing fabrics for color, only the synthetic chemicals are added to absorb UV light,” Hauser explains. “The more of the UV-absorbing chemicals you add to the fabric, the more SPF protection you get.”
Concerns about Chemicals
Just as different dyes are used on different fabrics, the chemicals used to add UPF to a garment vary depending on the chemical structure of the fabric. Chemical additives such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and Tiosorb M—the active ingredients in most sunscreens—are also the main additives used in sun-protective clothing.
The Environmental Working Group rates both zinc oxide and Tiosorb M as low health and environmental hazards; titanium dioxide has a low overall hazard but a moderate cancer risk. On its website, Coolibar, a manufacturer of sun-protective clothing, notes that the additives in its fabrics are the same as the active ingredients in sunscreens. Manufacturers claim that the sun protection will not wash out over time.
Solartex Sun Gear markets its sun-protective clothing as chemical-free. It’s the tight weave and dark fabrics that block UVA and UVB rays, according to co-founder Lisa Dewey. The designs, which often feature more coverage than traditional swimwear, also protect skin from the sun.
“People want sun protection but a lot of our customers, especially moms with small kids, are concerned about the chemicals in sunscreen,” explains Dewey. “Clothes with UPF are much easier than using sunscreen—you don’t have to ask anyone to get your back or hold down a wiggling kid to get it applied—and they are fashionable, too.”
(The research on the potential health effects of sunscreen is mixed. The Skin Cancer Foundation reviewed research on sunscreen additives including oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and nanoparticles, and found conflicting research on the adverse effects of all three compounds).
It’s not just the chemical additives that some consumers are concerned about. Most of the clothing marketed as sun-protective is made from petroleum-derived fabrics like nylon, polyester and Lycra, which raise some red flags for their environmental impacts. (Studies done by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency found that these fabrics were the most apt to have UPFs of 50 or higher.
Testing the Technology
While it might be easier to slip into a long-sleeved t-shirt with UPF protection than apply and reapply sunscreen throughout the day, there is one significant difference between sun-protective fabrics and sunscreen: Regulation.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates sunscreen because it has a medical use—the prevention of sunburn—but it does not regulate sun-protective clothing despite manufacturers making similar claims. The FDA did approve the first sun-protective clothing in 1992 because it was marketed as a medical device, but the agency no longer regulates claims on clothing.
Now, the Federal Trade Commission steps in if there are complaints about false advertising.
However, there is no federal oversight regarding a product’s effectiveness in terms of sun protection. (An industry group, the American Society for Testing and Materials, designed the original labeling requirements for textiles intended to protect against UVA and UVB rays.)
As Lichtenfeld puts it, “There are industry standards, but there are no government standards and abiding by the [industry standards] is completely voluntary.”
Despite a lack of regulation, using clothing for sun protection appears to be effective—but getting the protection might not require spending more for special UPF-rated clothing.
Consumer Reports compared the UPF in three white shirts: A t-shirt marketed as UPF 50+ delivered a UPF of 174 (which increased to 211 when it was wet) compared to two t-shirts not marketed as sun-protective—a “beefy” t-shirt made from heavier cotton and a t-shirt made from a polyester/spandex blend—which delivered UPFs of 115 and 392, respectively.
Even so, manufacturers like Coolibar and Solartex Sun Gear have certifications from organizations such as the Skin Cancer Foundation. To earn a nod of approval from this nonprofit organization, clothing must undergo extensive testing to confirm product labels are accurate and the fabrics do indeed provide the UVA and UVB protection as advertised; the certifications are renewed annually.
“UPF ratings try to designate clothing as having stronger assurance in being effective for blocking the sun’s rays, but all fabrics provide some protection,” Lichtenfeld says.
While wearing UPF clothing provides an important layer of protection between the skin and harmful UVA and UVB rays, fabric is not sufficient sun protection on its own.
“My concern is the areas that the clothing does not cover,” Lichtenfeld says.
Even with the best UPF clothing, sunscreen is still a necessity. Your sun-protective swimsuit, or even a long-sleeved shirt and pants, will still leave some skin exposed—and that skin needs to be slathered with SPF, according to Lichtenstein. It’s also a good idea to avoid being outside—or seek shade—during the hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is the hottest.
While swimsuits, shorts and t-shirts account for the bulk of sun-protective clothing, makers like Royal Robbins also offer pants, long-sleeved shirts and even trench coats to emphasize that sun protection is not just a concern during the summer months—and Lichtenfeld offers the same advice about using sunscreen for all outdoor activities, regardless of the season.
It’s the combination of sunscreen, sun-protective clothing and sun smarts that offers the best protection against harmful UV rays and decreases the risk of being diagnosed with skin cancer.
“Each step in the chain offers an increased amount of protection and decreases the risk of sunburn, but no one approach is sufficient in isolation,” Lichtenfeld says.