Sun Protection You Can Wear

06/29/2014 08:33 am ET | Updated Aug 29, 2014

As the summer quickly approaches, we are bombarded with this season's newest technologies and products for protection against dangerous UV radiation from the sun. Seen in new sunscreens, make-up products, and even clothing, sun protection is this summer's biggest trend, and it's easy to get confused by all of the terms -- SPF, UPF, UVA rays, UVB rays -- and by what they all actually mean.

SPF and UPF refer to protection levels, and UVA and UVB are both types of solar rays that you want to protect your skin against.

We've heard about sunscreen use and SPF for years, but did you know that SPF stands for "sun protection factor"? Think of the factor, or number on the bottle, as a multiplier. The number indicates how much longer that product will protect you from visibly burning. That means if you hit the beach wearing SPF 15, it should take you 15 times as long to burn than with bare skin.

With up to 90 percent of the yearly skin cancer cases in the United States related to sun exposure (Skin Cancer Foundation), sunscreen may not even be enough. The average adult needs a shot glass-sized amount of sunscreen for a day spent in a swimsuit (Food and Drug Association) -- and that's not including the reapplications necessary after a few hours or swimming or sweating. Plus, many people misuse sunscreen, forgetting to reapply or missing hard-to-reach places.

Over the past few years clothing -- especially active wear -- that protects against UV radiation has become increasingly popular. The term UPF stands for "ultraviolet protection factor" and refers to the rating scale used for protective clothing, just as SPF is used for sunscreen. The UPF scale gives a garment a rating typically between 15, adequate protection, and 150, excellent protection.

But how do they determine how well a piece of clothing blocks the sun's harmful rays?

All clothing blocks the sun to some extent because it acts as a physical barrier between UV rays and your skin. Laboratories further evaluate various garments by putting them through tests that simulate how they would be used every day throughout the summer. A material for protective swimwear is soaked in chlorinated water, washed repeatedly, and exposed to UV radiation, and the results of these tests determine the garment's final UPF rating. (International UV Testing Laboratories)


With interest in UV-resistant clothing on the rise, many active wear manufacturers are using specific fabrics, chemical treatments, and dyes that are known to protect against UV rays.

So what does all this mean when you're searching for a swimsuit, golf shirt, or other active wear for the summer?

Experts recommend covering skin as much as possible when outside, though the thought of pants and long sleeves doesn't sound too appealing on a hot August day. If you're worried about the heat, look for loose-fitting garments with mesh paneling for extra breathability. Just be sure the mesh paneling is on parts of the garment that don't receive direct sunlight, like under the arms or down the sides of the torso; the loose weave of mesh is much less effective at blocking UV rays than more tightly-woven materials.

Like mesh, other sheer or thin materials may not offer much protection from the sun, so although they are lightweight you may need sunscreen beneath them. The good news is that, since many sportswear brands now use moisture-wicking material to draw sweat away from the body, there's no need to fear the long-sleeved tennis shirt this summer.

Check the tags of potential purchases and look for materials like polyester, which is naturally effective at diffusing UV radiation, and try to avoid pieces that are largely made up of cotton, which doesn't offer much protection. (Skin Cancer Foundation)

With proper use of sunscreen and the right clothing, you can spend a day at the beach, on the green, or in the backyard feeling cool and comfortable and knowing that you are safe from the sun.