If you already know the importance of applying sunscreen, you're well on your way to protecting yourself not only from sunburns and sun damage, but also from skin cancer, a disease an estimated 9,500 Americans are diagnosed with each day, per the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Unfortunately, sunscreen is not always effective, especially when it's not applied (or reapplied) properly. That's where sun-protective clothing can come in handy, as a way to protect your skin from the sun's harmful UV rays.
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What Is Sun-Protective Clothing?
Sun-protective clothing includes shirts, pants and hats that have UV protection built into the material.
"This specialized material is designed to block harmful ultraviolet radiation from reaching the skin utilizing different types of weaving and the density of the fibers within the fabric," explains Nadir Qazi, DO, a board-certified physician, cosmetic surgeon and owner of Qazi Cosmetic Clinic in Irvine, California.
Unfortunately, regular clothing fails to protect us from these harmful UV rays, which can lead to chronic UV damage that accumulates in the DNA of our cells, explains Erum Ilyas, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
"If designed with coverage in mind, sun-protective clothing can reduce the need for traditional sunscreen products for the face, hands and limited areas of the body, which will reduce the overall impact of sunscreen products on our health."
What Is UPF?
Each item of sun-protective clothing is given an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating, which measures how effective it is at shielding you from UV rays.
"A simple T-shirt provides minimal sun protection (around 7, which is insufficient), but most sun-protective clothing is rated UPF 30 or higher to be considered protective from the sun," explains Mary Alice Mina, MD, Atlanta-based dermatologist and Mohs surgeon.
"A simple trick to see if your clothing offers any sun protection is to hold the garment up to the light — if you see holes through the fabric and lots of sun or light coming through, then UV rays can easily pass through."
What to Look for in Sun-Protective Clothing
Here are some features that skin-care professionals recommend looking for when shopping for sun-protective clothing.
1. UPF Level
Just as sunscreen comes in varying SPF levels, sun-protective clothing comes in a variety of UPF ratings.
"UPF 50+ is the highest category of protection you can get and has a rating of 'excellent,' while UPF 30 is the minimum rating that can qualify for the Skin Cancer Foundation's Seal of Approval," says Emily de Golian, MD, dermatologist and Mohs Surgeon with Dermatology Consultants, P.C. in Atlanta.
For higher-risk individuals — i.e. those with fair skin, light eyes and light hair, as well as those with a history of skin cancer or atypical moles — she recommends looking for UPF 50+ items to ensure the best possible protection.
The darker and brighter the color of sun-protective clothing, the more protection it is likely to provide, according to Dr. Qazi.
"Dark colors absorb light rays, keeping harmful UV rays from reaching the skin," he says. "Lighter colors tend to be more favored because they keep you cooler, but darker, more vibrant shades will offer better protection."
It's also important to consider high the thread count and tight weave when shopping for sun-protective clothing, as both features provide more protection, notes Dr. Qazi.
"Densely woven materials like denim, canvas, wool and some synthetic fibers offer more protection than sheer, thin and loosely woven materials," he says. "A quick way to check is to hold the garment up to the light: If you can see through it, UV radiation can penetrate it."
4. Fit and Coverage
Remember that your sun-protective clothing is only as protective as the skin it covers. Dr. de Golian recommends hats have at least a 3-inch brim and shirts have long sleeves and thumb holes that cover the hands more effectively.
"I frequently treat skin cancers, precancerous actinic keratoses and sun spots on the hands," she notes. "So consider UPF driving gloves as well, since cars are a major source of UV exposure."
Lastly, it's important to find sun-protective clothing in styles you like, as this will ensure you actually wear the items often.
"If you only choose sun-protective clothing that is meant to cover you up but is not attractive or stylish, then you quite simply will not routinely wear it," says Dr. Ilyas. "The same is true for sunscreens — if they are white and pasty, you will only wear them when you absolutely have to but not as a matter of routine."
Bathing suits are typically the type of clothing you're wearing when you are most exposed to the sun. That's why UPF-protective swimsuits can come in handy.
Rash guards are a type of UPF-protective swimsuit that cover your chest, back and arms when you're swimming or at the beach.
"Long sleeves are preferred, as well as a higher neckline to provide ample coverage," Dr. Mina says. "If you're wearing a more fitted top, look for one with a zipper, which can make it easier to get on and off when wet."
1. Women's Long Sleeve Laser Cut Scallop Neck Zipper Rash Guard SPF 50+
With long sleeves and a dark color, this rash guard is the ideal way to protect yourself from the sun's harmful rays. It features a stylish scallop neckline and has a quarter zipper in the back that makes it easy to put on and take off.
It's made out of UPF 50+ sun protective fabric to block out 98 percent of the sun's rays.
Buy it: SwimZip.com; Price: $49.99
2. Mila Long Sleeve One Piece Swimsuit With UPF 50+
This stylish one-piece suit features long sleeves with thumbholes, to keep your arms and hands covered, plus a crew neck and a full zipper up the front.
The material is UPF 50+, and it comes in an array of bright colors.
Buy it: Mott50.com; Price: $138
3. Coolibar Men's Tulum Long Sleeve Surf Rash Guard UPF 50+
This surf shirt is made for the water, with chlorine- and salt water-resistant UPF 50+. It has a mock neck and long sleeves for great coverage, and it features a snug-but-stretchy fit to keep you comfortable during summer activities.
Buy it: Coolibar.com; Price: $65
When hiking, it's important to be mindful about covering all areas — your face, ears and neck along with your arms and legs.
"While your nose might get some protection from sunscreen, we often forget the less-visible parts," says Dr. Qazi. "Hiking gear will often have its UPF level readily available, so it can be easier to find equipment that will provide you with the protection levels you need."
1. REI Co-op Sahara Shade Hoodie
Made from a polyester-spandex blend, this hoodie offers up a UPF 50 rating, making it a great hiking shirt.
The material is soft to the touch as well as moisture-wicking, which can come in handy during hot days on the trail. It also features an antimicrobial treatment that prevents bacteria growth, which can cause unpleasant odors.
Another plus: This hoodie has three panels with an internal drawstring to help further protect the neck area from the sun.
2. REI Co-op Sahara Convertible Pants
3. Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure Hat
It's easy to see why this hat is a top-rated item on REI's website.
It's clamshell-style brim and cape provide ample coverage for your face and neck, and an under-chin strap keeps it securely in place during even the toughest hikes. Ventilation at the top and a sweat-wicking material keep you cool and comfortable on hot days. And, of course, it's got a UPF 50+ sun rating.
Buy it: REI.com; Price: $42
Long-sleeve shirts provide optimal coverage while outdoors.
"Our brains think we're better off with short-sleeved or sleeveless garments in the sun, especially in the summer or during periods of rigorous activity, but these expose more of our skin to the sun," says Dr. Qazi.
He recommends a fabric with moisture-wicking properties and good ventilation to maintain your body temperature.
Morada Everyday Long Sleeve T-Shirt UPF 50+
New York City-based cosmetic dermatologist, Elaine Kung, MD, is a big fan of Coolibar, which she says is one of the original brands for UV protective clothing.
"It was the first clothing company that received the Skin Cancer Foundation's Seal of Recommendation and creates long-sleeve shirts that are sweat-wicking, breathable and UPF protective because athletes spend a lot of time outdoors."
This shirt provides UPF 50+ protection and is made from Coolibar's ZnO fabric, which embeds millions of zinc oxide particles — the same ingredient used in mineral sunscreens.
One of the most common places for melanoma to develop is on the calves, according to Dr. Ilyas, as this part of the leg faces behind you, where you may be less likely to apply sunscreen.
The right pants can make a difference: "Long pants, ideally to the ankle, and wide-leg pants or boot-cut pants can offer added coverage for the tops of the feet," says Dr. Ilyas.
1. Lululemon Back-Zip High-Rise Paddle Tight 28"
These high-rise leggings offer up UPF 40+ protection, which is rated "very good," according to Dr. de Golian.
"Melanoma is most common on legs in women, so this area should always be protected when sun-exposed with either UPF clothing or SPF sunscreens," she says.
To maintain the integrity of this fabric, it's best to hang dry instead of using the dryer.
Buy it: Lululemon.com; Price: $128
2. Coolibar Men's Miller Convertible Pants
Made from a durable fabric, these stretchy tech pants are designed with tool storage in mind, so they'll be your go-to for fishing or any number of household projects. Plus, they zip off just above the knee to become shorts for hotter days. And they've got UPF 50+ protection.
Buy it: Coolibar.com; Price: $99
Much like swimwear, running gear has come a long way with sun protection, and there are many great, breathable options, according to Dr. Mina.
"Running gear tends to be more form-fitting for easy mobility, and fabric made for runners tends to be excellent at wicking away sweat and keeping you cool when exercising outdoors," she says.
The more coverage you can get when it comes to running gear, the better, so she recommends opting for a long-sleeve top and legging-type pants.
2XU Compression Flex Arm Sleeve
Sun sleeves like these are a great way to protect the arms while running and keep the body a little cooler during your run, according to Dr. Qazi.
"Lighter sleeves reflect harmful radiation, and the fabrics are often specially treated to increase absorption factors," he says.
The weave of the fabric used in this arm sleeve not only increases UV protection, but it also adds moisture-wicking and cooling properties to the material to keep you comfortable on your run.
Buy it: Amazon; Price: From $21.21
- Nadir Qazi, DO, a board-certified physician, cosmetic surgeon and owner of Qazi Cosmetic Clinic located in Irvine, California.
- Erum Ilyas, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
- Mary Alice Mina, MD, Atlanta-based dermatologist and Mohs surgeon
- Emily de Golian, MD, dermatologist and Mohs Surgeon with Dermatology Consultants, P.C. in Atlanta
- Elaine Kung, MD, New York City-based cosmetic dermatologist
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