Protective clothing can help prevent skin cancers by blocking the sun's ultraviolet rays.
Most skin cancers are a direct result of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. To protect skin against this radiation, the National Institutes of Health recommends that — in addition to applying sunscreen — all adults and children wear sun-safe or sun-protective clothing.
Long sleeves, long pants and hats help to protect skin from the sun because all fabric disrupts UV radiation to some degree. However, darker fabrics, synthetic fabrics such as nylon or polyester, and those with tighter weaves, such as denim, provide a higher level of sun protection than more loosely woven, lighter-colored fabrics — for instance, cotton T-shirts.
Since it may not be realistic to expect people to wear dark, heavy fabrics in the hot temperatures of summer, lighter-weight, more versatile clothing advertised as sun-protective apparel provides consumers with more options. Sun-protective clothing is typically made of fabrics designed to absorb or reflect UV radiation, and is rated with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) value.
“Sun-protective clothing provides more consistent and uniform coverage, and more lasting protection, than sunscreen by having a rating of UPF, or an ultraviolet protection factor,” says dermatologist Clifford S. Perlis, director of Mohs micrographic surgery and dermatologic surgery at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “UPF indicates a broader spectrum of protection against radiation damage than sunscreen’s SPF; UPF reflects a measure of protection from ultraviolet A and B radiation, whereas SPF is primarily a measure of protection from ultraviolet B.”
But do these ratings still apply when clothing gets wet? While the UPF protection level of regular clothing drops when wet, some manufacturers of sun-protective apparel test their fabrics to ensure that the UPF rating stays consistent whether the fabric is wet or dry. However, this feature may vary from company to company.Manufacturers of sun-protective clothing vary from small online manufacturers to big-name providers of outdoor gear. A variety of clothing is available, largely from online sources, including long-sleeved shirts, pants, hats, sundresses, surf shirts, bathing suits and bathing suit cover-ups. The clothing is available for babies, children and adults; protecting children can be especially important, since one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles someone’s chances of later developing melanoma.
“Manufacturers can use the UPF rating if they offer the type of fabrics that naturally do not allow ultraviolet radiation to get through them, or by treating fabrics to block or absorb UV light,” says Lisa Quale, a senior health educator at The University of Arizona Cancer Center.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was originally involved in the development of standards for UPF labeling, the matter was eventually turned over to the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Since 2001, testing of sunprotective clothing has been performed by manufacturers according to standards developed by the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists and the American Society for Testing and Materials. Clothing rated as UPF 40 or greater is considered to provide excellent protection, blocking 97.5 percent of UV radiation or more.
“Some of our darker-weave fabrics do not need any additional treatment to provide high UPF values, but we do additional treatment in the milling of the yarn to help bind certain kinds of fabrics together to allow less sunlight to pass through,” explains Rhonda Sparks, who founded the sun-protective clothing company UV Skinz after losing her 32-year-old husband to melanoma.Perlis recommends the use of sun-protective clothing by individuals with a personal or family history of skin cancer, or who have significant risk factors for developing skin cancer, such as fair skin, blue eyes, red hair or a large number of moles. The use of these protective fabrics is particularly important in the summer and when exposed to sunlight for periods of longer than 30 minutes.
“In the winter in cold climates, most people have so many layers of clothing on that no sunlight is going to pass through,” Perlis says. “However, I do think it is important for individuals to get in the habit of using sunscreen on their faces, noses and ears every day, because even if you are going to and from a car on a cold winter day, there is still lots of UV radiation, and even more may be reflecting when snow is on the ground.”
Quale also recommends that people at risk for skin cancer buy a few sun-protective clothing items and wear them religiously, but she understands that not everyone will be able to stock their closets with this type of specialized clothing.
One alternative to sun-protective clothing is the use of a laundry additive or aid that washes UV protection into clothes. One such product, SunGuard, can be added to a laundry cycle with warm water, giving clothes a UPF of 30 that lasts about 20 washes, and promises not to change the texture, color or breathability of the clothing.
“If the sun is up, it’s emitting ultraviolet radiation,” Quale says. “I always tell people to cover up as much as they can using long sleeves, long pants, a hat, sunglasses, the whole nine yards. Whatever else is exposed, apply sunscreen to.”