Clothing can be a convenient and effective way to protect yourself from the sun while on vacation. It protects you from ultraviolet radiation (UVR) - both UVA and UVB - and 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 UV rays.
- Long-sleeved shirts with collars and long pants provide the most protection because less skin is exposed to the sun. Tunics and cover-ups are perfect when relaxing by the pool or beach.
- Loosely-fitted clothing is more comfortable since it allows air to flow through and cool the skin. Tying a sarong around your waist provides excellent protection without making you sweat.
- Lighter colors may feel cooler, but darker colors actually absorb UV light better and provide more protection for your skin.
- Fabric with tight knit or weave blocks UV rays from reaching the skin - the tighter the weave, the more UVR is blocked.
UPF stands for the Ultraviolet Protection Factor of fabric. A fabric with UPF 50 allows only 1/50th, or 2% of the UV radiation striking it to pass through to the skin. According to U.S. guidelines, there are three classification categories for sun protective fabrics and clothing:
- Good UVR Protection (for UPF 15 to 24)
- Very Good UVR Protection (for UPF 25 to 39)
- Excellent UVR Protection (for UPF 40 to 50+).
Fabrics labeled with a UPF number have been treated by the manufacturer with UV light-absorbing chemicals before they are sold. This can improve the sun protection of lighter, cooler, more open weave fabrics and last a long time.
If a fabric is not labeled with a UPF, it doesn't mean it won't protect from UVR. To test the 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.
Non-UPF garments can also be treated in a few ways. Some common laundry detergents contain optical brighteners that can improve UVR absorption and make garments more sun safe. Other special laundry products work in much the same way. Clothes can also be treated with spray-on treatments that can increase UPF and last through repeated washings.
When choosing sun safe clothing, keep in mind that dark heavy fabric, while sun safe, can be too hot in the summer. In order to avoid heat illnesses, consider packing light fabrics that have a high UPF and that let air flow across the skin.