Fabrics and Clothing for Protection Against the Sun


Clothing Selection

Clothing is generally a good UV blocker. When choosing clothing for sun protection, select clothing to cover as much skin as possible. High or turned up collars, long sleeves, and long pants or skirts are good choices.


Fabric selection

Fabrics should block or reflect as much light as possible.   

Tightly woven fabrics generally protect better than loosely woven fabrics. Less UVR passes through tightly woven or knitted fabrics. Open weave fabrics have holes that do not block the UV light from skin. Lighter knits or sheer clothing do not have as great a sun protective value as clothing made from heavier fabrics. Denim and corduroy provide good levels of sun protection. The sun protection value of fabric is more a function of the hole size of the fabric mesh than the particular fabric type. The tightness of the weave is an important determinant of sun protection.

Synthetic fibers such as polyester, lycra, nylon, and acrylic can be more protective than some natural fibers. Shiny and satiny fabrics can provide higher levels of sun protection. Both lustrous polyesters and shiny silk can be highly protective. Shiny or lustrous semi-synthetic fabrics reflect more UV than matte ones which tend to absorb rather than reflect UV.

Darker color fabrics provide greater protection from UV rays than do lighter color fabrics. Brighter, more vivid colors provide better protection than pastels or white.   

Environmental influences including laundering, humidity, wetness, and degree of stretching play a major role in fabric ability to provide protection. It is important to note that fabrics are significantly less protective when wet. Fabric is significantly less effective at sun protection when stretched. Worn threadbare and faded clothing might have less ability to provide sun protection. 


Common sense home fabric test

The sun protection effectiveness of fabric can be measured in different ways. Common sense can be used to test fabric for the quality of protection against the sun. First, determine type of fabric and visually check weave, weight, and color.

A useful test is simply hold the piece of clothing up to a strong light source such as a light bulb. If you can see images through the item then it probably has a UPF value of less than 15. If light gets through the cloth but you can't really see through it than the item probably has a UPF value between 15 and 50. If the fabric completely blocks all light than the item probably has a UPF value of greater than 50. Traditional heavy dark blue cotton denim is an example of a fabric that can test with a high protection value of 50+.


Protecting against UV light with clothing or UPF: Ultraviolet Protection Factor  

Measurement of ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) is accepted around the world providing a standard for clothing protection. A UPF label on an item of clothing provides reliable guidance for knowing how effective a garment is at blocking out UV.  Unlike SPF that measures the amount of skin redness, UPF measures the amount of UV radiation that penetrates a fabric and reaches the skin. The UPF rating indicates how much the fabric material reduces UV Radiation (UVR) exposure. A UPF rating of 50 will allow 1/50th of the sun's UV rays to pass through the fabric and a material with a UPF rating of 20 would only allow 1/20th of the UVR falling on its surface to pass through it.  


Image from ARPANSA, Clothing as UVR protection,

Page reviewed: 22 February 2012.



The color and density of the fabric affect its ability to provide protection from the sun. Darker-colored fabrics are usually more effective than lighter at blocking out the sun.


UPF ratings range from 15 to 50 with higher ratings indicating more effective blocking and therefore better protection for the wearer of a garment made from the fabric. Fabrics that test higher than UPF 50 are rated as UPF 50+. Other nations including the UK and the USA followed Australia by adopting the UPF measurement standards and labels for consumer awareness.


ASTM Standard for UPF Ratings and Protection Categories
UPF Rating
Protection Category
% UV radiation Blocked
UPF 15 - 24
Good
93.3 - 95.9
UPF 25 - 39
Very Good
96.0 - 97.4
UPF 40 - 50+
Excellent
97.5 - 99+


In a study (Gambichler et al) of 236 typical summer fabrics, a third of summer clothing provided insufficient UV protection. Wool, polyester, and blends were likely to provide sufficient UV protection (UPF 30+). Cotton and linen were among the fabrics with low protection. Fabrics with black, navy-blue, white, green, or beige provided most frequently UPF values of 30+. The most striking result is the fact that 78 fabrics (33%) had insufficient UV protection with UPF of less than 15.

Dark blue denim jeans offer an estimated UPF of 1700. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates an average child’s white T-shirt has a UPF of 7 and the UPF drops to 3 if the material gets wet. A green cotton T-shirt is estimated to have UPF of 10. Sun-protective fabrics must have a minimum UPF of 30 to receive The Skin Cancer Foundation's Seal of Recommendation


Special fabrics and clothing made for UV protection

Some fabrics are specifically made for UV protection. These innovative high tech fabrics are designed to protect against the sun and UV rays.

Some fabrics are treated to improve the UPF rating. This is usually done if the base fabric has a low natural resistance to UVR. Treatment with a UVR absorber, generally during manufacture, can result in a fabric with a higher UPF rating that retains the comfort properties of the original fabric. Many dyes absorb UVR and therefore increase the UPF rating of the fabric. Some UVR absorbers behave like colorless dyes. They bond to the fabric in a similar way, and have a comparable permanency to colored dyes.

Sun protective clothing items are sold with brand names unique to a variety of specialty retail shops.


Laundry and additives to increase sun protection of clothing

Washing a garment can increase its sun protection ability. The fabric weave or knit will tighten with smaller holes if the clothing item shrinks with washing.

Some laundry detergents include "optical brightening agents" to make white clothing whiter and brighter. The accumulated "optical brightening agents" after repeated multiple washings with these detergents could increase the UPF rating of clothing.

SunGuard is often known as Rit SunGuard. SunGuard is a product of Phoenix Brands LLC. SunGuard works by washing an invisible UVB and UVA protection into clothing. The active ingredient TINOSORB® FD is a UV protectant from Ciba Labs. SunGuard invisibly penetrates a garment's fibers – so your clothes absorb UV rays rather than allowing them to pass through fabric. A single treatment of SunGuard will block over 96% of UV rays from passing through clothes, and provide a UPF 30 protection rating. Follow package instructions for use. The manufacturer says the protection lasts for up to 20 washings, the product will not change clothing color or texture, and it is safe for most washable fabrics. (Phoenix Brands)

 We highly recommend that you try anything new in moderation, to test for any reaction you might have. 

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References

ARPANSA, Our Services: About Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) Testing, Page updated: 4 March 2013.


ARPANSA, Clothing as UVR protection, Page reviewed: 22 February 2012

Department of Dermatology,University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Health topics: Sun protection and sunscreens, modified August 2006.

Gambichler, T., Rotterdam, S., Altmeyer, P., and Hoffmann, K., Protection against ultraviolet radiation by commercial summer clothing: need for standardised testing and labeling, BMC Dermatology 2001, 1:6.

Menter JM, Hatch KL., Clothing as solar radiation protection. Elsner P, Hatch K, Wigger-Alberti W (eds): Textiles and the Skin. Curr Probl Dermatol. Basel, Karger, 2003, vol 31, pp 50–63


Gies, P,  McLENNAN, A,  Ready To Wear Sun Protection: Clothing Fits the Bill, Skin Cancer Foundation Journal, XXX, 2012

Cool Clothes, Safe Skin.  Skin Cancer Foundation, 2013
http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/sun-protection/clothing/cool-clothes-safe-skin

Get in on the Trend . Skin Cancer Foundation, 2013

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 Consult with your physician regarding any treatments or medical advice suggested by this website. 

We are not physicians, we are people trying to learn about our conditions and better our lives. We try to be accurate, but the articles and advice may have errors, become out-of-date, or even give bad advice. 
We highly recommend that you try anything new in moderation, 
to test for any reaction you might have. 

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