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How to Choose Clothing to Protect Your Skin From the Sun

Buying Guide

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself from excessive UV radiation exposure while enjoying your favorite sports and activities.

Last updated: November 3, 2021
4 min read
How to Choose Sun-Protective Clothing

While every athlete enjoys catching some rays on a sunny day, a smart athlete is also concerned about harmful UV light. That’s because exposure to UV radiation produced by the sun damages the DNA in your skin cells, which can cause premature aging and skin cancer. If you want to look and feel your best far into the future while still enjoying outdoor activities, the best way you can protect yourself is with the proper clothing.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends protective clothing from the sun and also gives sun-protective products a seal of recommendation. Here’s what you need to know to choose the right attire for your next adventure under the sky.

What Is UPF?

Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) shows how much UVA and UVB radiation is blocked by a particular fabric. In order to receive a seal of recommendation from the Skin Cancer Foundation, an apparel item must be at least UPF 30, which means it allows 1/30th of the radiation from the sun to reach your skin. UPF 50+ fabrics are rated as providing excellent sun protection.

That’s different from Sun Protection Factor (SPF), which indicates how much solar energy is required to burn skin with a topical product versus without.

How to Choose Sun-Protective Clothing

  1. 1.Wear Bright or Dark Colors

    Not all clothing provides sufficient protection from UV radiation. For example, a white cotton t-shirt that gets wet has a UPF of only 3. Bright and dark colors absorb more UV rays so they don’t harm your skin.
  2. 2.Choose Densely-Woven Fabrics

    Dense materials like canvas, wool, or synthetic fabrics such as polyester make good UV-blocking material. Unbleached cotton is also a natural UV-absorber, and some clothes are treated with chemicals or special dyes to maximize their protective capabilities.

  3. 3.Opt for a Loose Fit

    Tight clothing can allow more UV light through as the fabric stretches. Looser fits will let a lot less light pass through to your skin.

  4. 4.Cover Up

    When in doubt, cover more exposed skin with long-sleeve shirts and pants to avoid prolonged exposure to the sun.

  5. 5.Go With Performance Apparel

    Choose garments designed for your activity that will last longer. Fabric that gets stretched out or absorbs sweat easily will lose UV protection. Opt for high-performance fabrics like Nike Dr-FIT and make sure to take proper care of your workout clothes.

Protective Clothing Checklist

To get the best UV protection from your apparel, you should shop for the following items:

  • A hat: Look for a hat with a brim at least 3 inches wide to fully keep the sun off your face, ears, upper back, and neck. Opt for a tightly-woven hat rather than a straw hat to keep more harmful rays away.

  • Sunglasses: Find a pair of sunglasses that is labeled UV 400, which will provide nearly complete protection from UV rays.

  • A shirt: If you’re going to be working out in hot weather, opt for a synthetic, dark-colored t-shirt that protects you from UV radiation. A long-sleeved shirt will provide more complete protection.

  • Shorts, leggings, or pants: Long pants will provide the most protection, but if you want to stay cool, opt for a dark-colored synthetic pair designed to block UV radiation.

  • Socks and shoes: Sandals will leave your feet and ankles unnecessarily exposed, and they also don’t provide enough protection or support for most outdoor activities. Grab a pair of moisture-wicking ankle socks and a stylish pair of running or training shoes that fit and are comfortable.

  • Bathing suits: If you’re planning to take a dip, you may want to purchase a UPF rated bathing suit.

Sun Protection Clothing FAQ

How Do You Test Clothing for UV Protection?
You can’t test for UPF at home, but you can rely on UPF ratings, since UPF-rated clothing sold in the U.S. has already been certified. However, keep in mind that if the shirt gets stretched out or wet, it may lose some of its UV-blocking capabilities. If you want to find out if an unlabeled t-shirt you have at home will provide any UV protection, try holding it up to the light. If it’s sheer, it won’t provide adequate sun protection.
Does UPF Wash Out of Clothing?
It depends on how the UPF rating was achieved. If the weave or the fabric blend itself provides the protection, the item of clothing will hold up much longer in the wash. However, all fabrics have fibers that can be distorted in the long run, leading to less UV protection. Chemical treatments and dyes are also fairly resilient but they may lose some effectiveness after multiple washings, so you should replace sun-protective clothing every two to three years. You can also buy UPF-boosting products to put in your laundry.
Is Sun-Protective Clothing Better than Sunscreen?
Clothing that is rated UPF 50 or higher will provide better protection than most sunscreen products, but since clothing won’t cover areas like your hands, neck, or face, dermatologists recommend using a combination of both. Wearing a UPF shirt and pants along with sunscreen on exposed areas will provide good protection on hot days.

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