Sunscreen clothing

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When it comes to sun care products, sunscreen clothing is often overlooked. Although no substitute for a good quality sunscreen, it provides a valuable extra line of defense. It is one of the easiest ways to keep you and your family protected.

Sunscreen clothing that has been made with material that contains a measurable ultraviolet protection factor is becoming more popular in recent times as we are all persuaded that the sun's UV rays are harmful to our health. It is also referred to as 'SPF clothing' or 'UV protective clothing'.

Organizations such as the Skin Cancer Foundation, the American Cancer Society, the Skin Cancer Foundation of Australia and the American Academy of Dermatology are among the many organizations that recommend sun protective wear as an additional sun protection measure.

Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) is a measurement that represents the amount of Ultra Violet A (UVA) or Ultra Violet B (UVB) radiation that can penetrate a fabric and reach the skin.

This is in contrast to the Sun (or Solar) Protection Factor (SPF), which measures the time that it takes for UVB rays to cause the skin to redden. This factor is intended for use by an individual to calculate how much time they would be able to have in the sun before they started to burn. eg. If you take 20 minutes to burn without any sunscreen, then an SPF of 15 would increase that time to 20 x 15 = 300 minutes, or 5 hours.

So, the SPF is used to translate protection time for the skin, while UPF provides the rating for sunscreen clothing, with no consideration for the length of time of exposure.

In 2000 the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) published new U.S. standards for the preparation and labeling of garments protecting people from both UVA and UVB radiation:

UPF Rating...............PROVIDES...............% UV BLOCKED

15-24:..........GOOD UV PROTECTION..........93% - 96%

25-39......VERY GOOD UV PROTECTION......96% - 97%

40-50.......EXCELLENT UV PROTECTION.......98% - 99%

Who uses sunscreen clothing?

Sun protection clothing is understandably centered around those activities where people spend a large amount of time outdoors and therefore see the benefit of investing in these specific clothes. Typically this is split into the following outdoor categories:

  • Sports: yachting, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, skiing - snow or water, cycling, horse riding, hunting, surfing, etc
  • Leisure: repeat of all the above, but also hiking, climbing, camping, cruising, snorkeling, boogie boarding, etc
  • Work: farming, scientific research, prospecting, mining, etc

Some sunscreen clothing can be used for protection indoors, where the sun's UVA rays will penetrate through glass, eg while driving a car, sitting on a train, or working indoors but sitting in the sun beaming through a window.

The best choice of fabric relevant to the specific activities and your needs will depend on the cut or weave of the cloth and even the color. Tight weaves like muslins and twills are best for high protection as well as the lighter colors.

Benefits from sunscreen protective clothing:

  • Over 97.5% protection of both UVA & UVB rays, or broad-spectrum protection, if using 50+ UPF
  • Does not wash off, like sunscreen cream, spray or gel. Also, it is easy to use when compared to the relative hassle and uncertainty of applying skin-covering sunscreen
  • Fabrics that 'breath' and dry quickly don't slow down performance levels required in outdoor activities when compared to ordinary fabrics such as T-shirt fabrics which would be clammy and heavy. At the same time, they will provide typically up to 5 times the UPF protection than ordinary fabric will
  • Reduces surf and sand irritation, which is good for such things as swimming, snorkeling, surfing and boogie boarding
  • Bright colors make your child or sporting partner easy to locate
  • By insulating the skin, it allows you to remain more cool and comfortable than normal, or warmer in cold water or snow
  • No toxic or harsh chemicals are used, as opposed to some of the ingredients used in many sunscreens

How is sunscreen clothing processed?

Manufacturers test and individually label each sun protective clothing item with an ultraviolet protection factor. They usually specifically label each garment with their relevant UPF 30, 35, 40, 45, 50 or 50+ (the highest rating label being 50+). Depending on your specific activity, you can select one that is relevant.

Specific fabrics are chosen for specific garments, taking into account the activity it is intended for. Examples are:

  • blouses and shirts will use a tightly woven nylon microfiber
  • silky, woven fabrics used for a more luxurious look
  • plaited cotton for polos or T-shirts
  • moisture-wicking, quick-drying nylon blend poplin for trousers
  • polyester microfiber mesh knit that stretches for such things as gloves
  • swimwear on the other hand ideally requires a knitted polyester fabric without Lycra to protect, as well as hold its shape and preferably be resistant to both sun and chlorine deterioration

Fabrics are enhanced with a UV diffuser that is mostly titanium dioxide. Other qualities may be required of the fabric, eg. the fabric must be able to breathe, or be extremely durable.

As a base for comparison purposes, wearing a regular cotton T-shirt is equivalent to having a sunscreen with SPF 5 on your skin. In general, sunscreen clothing aims to provide for higher levels of protection, as well as a more sophisticated fabric.

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