Are Your Summer Clothes Good Enough To Be Sun Protective Clothing?

Cynthia Bailey, MD|April 12, 2010

Did you know that the sun's UV rays can go through right your clothes? Damaging rays can pass directly through the fabric fibers as well as between them. One-third of what you plan to wear this summer will not protect you from sun. You'll tan, burn, and get sun damage UNDER your cloths. Understanding how to use clothing for sun protection will save you on sunscreen, provide you with convenient sun protection, actually keep you cool and it can even be a fashion statement if you do it right. First, the bad news about your clothes:

  • One-third of summer clothes are lousy at sun protecting skin. This is especially true for lightweight, thin fabric made of cotton, linen and rayon.
  • The best sun protection comes from fabric you're not likely to wear in the summer like thick and tightly woven fabric, dark colors, polyester, nylon and wool.
  • Wet, stretched fabric provides poor sun protection (think wet white cotton tee shirt). Interestingly, a dark tee shirt will probably provide more protection than a light-colored one because the color alone also helps absorb UV rays.
  • Fuzzy, new, unbleached cotton sometimes provides good sun protection when it's dry, but UV rays can pass through cotton fibers.

I see sun exposure, sun damage and skin cancers on the backs of people who do not directly expose their skin to the sun, especially after summer. I can only assume the problem is sun coming through their shirts. Now, the good news: It's easy to buy or make sun protective clothing! You can buy sun protective clothing from companies like REI, Sun Precautions, Coolibar etc. The styles are pretty generic, but the garments often contain hidden vents, zippers that open for ventilation and other clever tricks to keep you cool in sunny, hot places. (Think tropical vacation, hiking in the sun, gardening, cycling, etc.) The big surprise -- You can make sun protective clothing out of what's already in your closet using a product called Sun Guard. For $4 you treat an entire load of laundry, saving serious money and giving you fashion control. Sun Guard contains Tinosorb which binds to the fabric fibers and then absorbs the UV rays. I've used it many times and it's never damaged or changed the look or feel of the fabric. I've done the washing machine treatment and I also used it in a hotel sink to give this new cotton knit shirt complete sun protective power while I was on a sunny tropical vacation. You can see in the photos below, my Detecto Ring beads change color to indicate that UV rays went through the fabric before Sun Guard treatment. After the treatment, no color change with the Detecto Ring beads. This was at 12 noon on the equator! Detecto Ring under the untreated shirt at 12 noon, see the slight color Detecto Ring under a purchased sun protection shirt at 12 noon The same shirt after Sun Guard treatment. The Detecto Ring beads hardly turn color indicating that the shirt now has much better sun protection. Intense color to Detecto Beads without the shirt's protection at 12 noon A few more words about how your laundry care effects the sun protection of fabric: It's best to use detergents with 'optical brighteners' for your summer clothes. These optical brighteners actually absorb UV rays, releasing the energy as 'fluorescence' -- hence the bright look and more sun protection. Letting your clothing shrink a little will also increase sun protection because the spaces between the fabric fibers are tighter. Lastly, bleaching decreases sun protection so try to avoid it, especially for cotton and rayon fabric. Wishing you wonderful and sun damage free adventures! Prepare Yourself and Your Family For A Sun Safe Summer By Reading My Sun Protection Advice: How To Pick The Best Sunscreen How To Apply Sunscreen And Have Fabulous Skin Forever Reference: Photoprotection: a Review of the Current and Future Technologies, Steven Q. Wang et. al., Dermatologic Therapy, Vol. 23, 31-47 Photo Attribution: / CC BY-ND 2.0

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