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Clothing can be a convenient and effective sunscreen. It blocks UVA and UVB. It doesn't wash or wear off like sunscreen, so its protection can last all day. Clothing can block out the sun's harmful rays and should be one of the first lines of defense against sun exposure. Style and fabric affect the amount of protection that clothes provide against the sun's ultraviolet rays.

Long-sleeved shirts with collars and long pants provide the most protection because they leave less skin exposed to the sun. Loosely-fitted clothing is more comfortable since it allows air to flow through and cool the skin. Lighter colors may feel cooler, but darker colors actually absorb ultraviolet light better and provide more protection for your skin.

Fabric is full of tiny holes that can allow ultraviolet light through. The fewer the number and the smaller the size of the holes in the fabric, the more it blocks ultraviolet radiation. So, fabrics with a tight knit or weave block more ultraviolet light.

Some fabrics are labels with a UPF number. UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor. UPF is similar to SPF of sunscreens, except that UPF means the UV-testing was done with equipment rather than on people's skin. If labeled as sun protective the clothing usually has a UPF between 15 and 50+.

If a fabric is not labeled with a UPF it doesn't mean it won't protect from UV rays. To test fabric yourself, hold it about 8 inches from your eyes toward a light source and look through the fabric. If visible light can pass through the holes, so can invisible ultraviolet light.

When choosing sun safe clothing for your family, keep in mind that dark heavy fabrics, while sun safe, can be too hot in the summer. In order to avoid heat illnesses consider light fabrics that have a high UPF and that let air flow across the skin.

For cover-up clothing:

Looking to purchase sun safe clothing? Click here for a list of companies that sell these items.

Have more questions? Check out Skin Cancer 101 - Clothing.


Fast Facts

In a 1997 national survey, only 8% of parents used shirts to protect their children from the sun.

Robinson JK, Rigel RS, Amonette RA. JAMA.1998;280:317-318.

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