Clothing as Sun Protection
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.
Clothes can protect your skin against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. But not all clothing is created equal. The tightness of the weave, the weight, type of fiber, color and amount of skin covered all affect the amount of protection they provide.
UPF is the acronym for Ultraviolet Protection Factor and indicates how much of the sun’s UV radiation is absorbed by a fabric. A fabric with a rating of 50 will allow only 1/50th of the sun’s UV rays to pass through.
As a rule, light-colored, lightweight and loosely-woven fabrics do not offer much protection from the sun. That white T-shirt you slip on at the beach when you feel your skin burning provides only moderate protection from sunburn, with an average ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 7. At the other end of the spectrum, a long-sleeved dark denim shirt offers an estimated UPF of 1,700 – which amounts to a complete sun block. In general, clothing made of tightly-woven fabric best protects skin from the sun. The easiest way to test if a fabric can protect your skin is to hold it up to the light. If you can see through it, then UV radiation can penetrate it – and your skin.
The color of the fabric also plays a role. Darker-colored fabrics are more effective than lighter at blocking out the sun. For instance, the UPF of a green cotton T-shirt is 10 versus 7 for white cotton, and a thicker fabric such as velvet in black, blue or dark green has an approximate UPF of 50.
What the clothing is made of matters. Fabrics such as unbleached cotton contain special pigments called lignins that act as UV absorbers. High-luster polyesters and even thin, satiny silk can be highly protective because they reflect radiation.
Even if the piece of clothing has a good UPF, what you do while wearing it can make a difference. If the fabric gets stretched, it will lose some of its protective ability, because the fabric becomes thinner and more transparent to light. And once it gets wet, it can lose up to 50 percent of its UPF.
When selecting clothes for sun protection, consider fabrics that have been specially treated with chemical UV absorbers. These prevent some penetration of both UVB and UVA rays. A number of manufacturers are now making special sun-protective clothing that has been treated with a chemical sunblock during the manufacturing process. In addition, they use fabrics of the weave and colors that provide protection best. The garments are designed to cover as much of the skin as possible.
Sun Guard, a laundry additive that is now on the market contains the sunscreen Tinosorb. When added to a detergent, it increases the UPF of the clothing. This protection lasts through 20 washings.
To receive The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation, sun-protective fabrics must have a minimum UPF of 30. A UPF rating of 30-49 gives very good protection, and a 50+ rating gives excellent protection.
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