As every cottager knows, a thick layer of sunscreen is (or certainly should be!) part of the morning routine. But before a day spent outdoors, what if you could take sun protection a step further? A growing number of apparel brands offer pants, shirts, shorts and dresses that claim to provide strong protection against the sun's harmful rays. It sounds like a good idea—but is sun-protective clothing, also called UPF clothing, actually effective or is it just marketing? And if it works, is it really necessary?
Just like sunscreen is rated with a sun protection factor (SPF), clothing can be rated with a ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). The rating indicates how much UV radiation a fabric allows to reach your skin. "The higher the rating, the better the protection against harmful rays," says Renita Ahluwalia, the lead dermatologist and co-founder of Toronto's Canadian Dermatology Centre and a member of the Canadian Dermatology Association's Sun Awareness Working Group Committee. A UPF rating of 50, for example, means that 1 out of 50 UV rays would reach the body (2 per cent). A rating of about 30 or higher is considered very good protection from the sun, while 50 is excellent.
While some sun-protective clothing is pre-treated with UV-inhibiting ingredients, many aren't that high-tech, and simply rely on specially chosen fabrics rated for their level of UV protection.
Some do. Based on the weave, most jeans, for example, would have a good level of natural UPF rating, says Ahluwalia (assuming they aren't distressed and full of holes, as is a trend these days).
On the other hand, loosely knitted, lightly woven fabric won't provide protection. "On a hot day, people tend to wear light cotton shirts, and something like that wouldn't have a high UPF rating," says Ahluwalia. What's more, she adds, regular clothes won't have undergone UPF testing, so you’ll have idea of how much protection you’re really getting.
Like all dermatologists, Ahluwalia is a huge proponent of sunscreen. That said, if you’re wearing well-fitting, sun-protective clothing rated at 50 UPF, you can skip the lotion underneath. "For most skin types, sunscreen wouldn't be that essential because the clothing is blocking 98 percent of the rays," she explains. You’ll of course still have to apply sunscreen to any exposed areas, such as on your face, neck, and hands.
Many sporty brands offer UPF-rated clothing, such as Columbia Sportswear, Patagonia, Eddie Bauer and The North Face. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, is it worth it to replace your wardrobe? It may be, especially if you burn easily or have a problematic history with your skin. "It's great for people who have fair skin that's more likely to burn, less likely to tan, and certainly it's a good option if you have a history of skin cancer or you have pre-existing sun damage," says Ahluwalia.
It isn't going anywhere, say the experts. "It's definitely here to stay—and I think it will become even bigger," says Ahluwalia. "People want to protect their skin in other ways than just buying sunscreen, and I think more and more companies will have this testing and rating system available."
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