Your Summer Guide to SPF, UPF and Sun Protective Clothing

07 June 2022

CL Croft

We’ve all been there: on the way to an outside activity you run out the door in a hurry, only to realize later that you forgot to put on sunscreen. You give a brief shrug and think ‘I’ll be alright. It’s just this one time.’

But, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation , each and every ‘just one time’ sunburn increases the likelihood you’ll develop cancerous cells in your skin. In fact, 1 in 5 adults in the US will develop skin cancer by the time they reach 70 years old. It’s the most common cancer in the country.

Sunscreen is a helpful defense, but there’s an even better form of sun protection you might not think about: your clothing. Clothing is actually considered the single most effective form of sun protection. Under the cover of a sun shirt or jacket, you don’t run the risk of streaks, stripes, or the dreaded lobster back. And, you never need to reapply.

On the heels of skin cancer awareness month, here’s a breakdown on sun protection. What it is, why it matters and how to choose the best kind. Summer is just around the corner, and now is the perfect time to get educated and stay protected.

Sunburn basics

The painful redness you feel when your skin gets burned is an immune response from damaged cells. After overexposure to ultraviolet light, your body responds by increasing blood flow to the capillaries in your skin that turns it red. If the sunburn is severe enough to make your skin peel, it’s a sign your body is trying to shed those damaged cells. Damage the cells enough and you’re at risk of developing cancer.

We can blame this damage on the ultraviolet rays emitted by the sun, often referred to as UVA and UVB. To combat them, you need a literal sun block. Sunscreen is one kind—the cream you apply to your skin that typically contains UV absorbing chemicals or UV blocking minerals. Clothing is another kind.

How well a given sunblock protects you from sunburn is indicated by a rating: SPF (Sun Protection Factor) in sunscreens, and UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) in clothing.

Choosing the most effective SPF & UPF

The SPF number compares how long it would take your skin to redden under UVB rays with well applied sunscreen to how long it would take to burn with no sunscreen at all. So, if you apply an SPF 30 product correctly, it would take your skin 30 minutes longer to burn than without it. This is why the higher the SPF number, the better it protects you.

When it comes to sun protection from clothes, however, not all fabrics are created equal. UPF ratings used for clothing are based on the percentage of ultraviolet rays blocked by the fabric. A UPF of 5 (approximately the amount in a cotton t-shirt) means that 20% of UV rays can pass through as opposed to a 30 UPF fabric, which lets in only 3%. In clothes rated UPF 50+, like the CoolLife Movement Windbreaker, any amount less than two percent can pass through. 50+ indicates the most effective protection available in a piece of clothing.

How to pick sun protective clothes

If you’re looking for clothing to help shield you from the sun, here are a few rules of thumb.

Choose darker fabrics

Darker colors absorb UV rays more effectively than lighter ones, which rays can more easily pass through.

Look for denser weaves

Most fabrics are porous to some degree, which is how you get the breathability that helps you thermoregulate your body temperature. That porousness, though, also lets in UV rays. For the best sun protection, look for higher density fabrics that keep rays out.

Go for synthetic over natural

Natural fabrics like cotton and wool absorb UV rays, whereas synthetics like polyester, nylon and polyethylene scatter and reflect radiation.

A looser fit is better

When a fabric stretches across your skin, it opens up the porous holes in the fabric’s weave. Choosing looser fitting clothing helps to ensure the fabric doesn’t stretch and let UV rays in.

Fabric treatments can boost UPF

Some high-UPF fabrics are treated with chemical UV blockers to increase their protective factor. LifeLabs’ Movement Windbreaker, for instance, gets an extra boost from titanium dioxide, the same mineral used in some natural sunscreens. This allows the fabric to maintain its thermoregulating cooling powers at no cost to UV protection.

Used in combination with sunscreen or on their own, high UPF clothes offer reliable protection that doesn’t need to be reapplied. But no matter what kind of sun protection you choose, using it consistently and thoroughly is the best way to lower your risk of skin cancer.

Shop LifeLabs UPF 50+ Movement Windbreaker.

UV protection/UPF

UPF clothing explained:

“Your clothing doesn’t just look great. It also absorbs or blocks harmful UV radiation and remains one of the most effective forms of protection against sun damage and skin cancer .

What’s more, sun-protective clothing is the simplest way to stay safe; unlike sunscreen, you never need to reapply!”

Sunblock explained:

Sun exposure health risks: