Sun Protection Clothing: As Good as Sunscreen, or Better?

(Image credit: Pavel Losevsky | Dreamstime)

Outdoor enthusiast Dr. Susan Weinkle has found a way to do what she once considered impossible: she can kayak Florida's waterways for five-hour stretches in midsummer and not get a speck of sunburn.

Her secret? Sun protection clothing, specially treated fashions designed to filter ultraviolet rays. Carrying a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating, these clothes, hats and swimsuits have proliferated in the last decade as Americans have become more aware of the sun's hazards .

"Being sun-aware myself and an outdoor person, it has been a godsend," said Weinkle, a dermatologist in Bradenton, Fla., and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at University of South Florida. "It's not always the most stylish and the cost is high, but . . . the benefits far outweigh the costs."

Better than sunscreen?

Any clothing can be considered sun-protective if it covers the skin, and pieces in darker colors, tighter weaves and synthetic fabrics are all better at blocking harmful rays than lighter, loosely woven clothes of natural fibers, said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, an educational spokesman for The Skin Cancer Foundation.

But garments with a UPF rating are designed to provide more protection. The numbers range from 15 to 50-plus, and higher numbers indicate more UV protection. The number is comparable to the SPF (sun protection factor) of sunscreens, which also provide more protection at higher numbers.

Some UV-protective clothing is given its rating based on its fiber density and structure, including, for example, its thread count per inch. Other pieces are pre-treated with a UV-inhibiting ingredient.

But are we better off slathering on sunscreen or donning sun protection clothes? Assuming protective outfits cover most of the skin, they win hands-down at absorbing rays and stopping them from hitting the skin, Ziechner told MyHealthNewsDaily.

"Clothing is the single most effective form of sun protection, even more than sunscreen," said Zeichner, who is also director of cosmetic and clinical dermatology research at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. "Clothing is a physical blocker of the rays and sunscreen is applied to bare skin ."

Another reason sun protection garments beat sunscreen is because most people don't apply enough lotion and still consider themselves protected even after swimming or perspiring heavily, which dilutes sunscreen's effectiveness, Weinkle said.

"Very few people will be compliant enough to re-apply it," she said. "Sunscreens don't just stay on."

And with an ever-growing skin cancer rate more than 2 million Americans are diagnosed with some form of the malignancy each year we need to take advantage of every possible means of protection, Weinkle and Ziechner both said.

But how do I look?

Sun protection clothing may not be considered fashion-forward, the experts said, but eye-catching colors and styles have ramped up its popularity in the last several years. Weinkle has noticed more children wearing it on Florida's beaches, a trend occurring hand-in-hand with a higher density of umbrellas along the coastline.

Removing more than 1,600 skin cancer lesions in her practice each year, Weinkle said she thinks the fashions will catch on even more when consumers realize that wearing long sleeves and pants poolside is not dowdy or uncomfortable.

Many sun-protective outfits are vented under the arms and at other strategic points, she said, and the light fabrics make them exceedingly comfortable despite summer temperatures.

Zeichner cautioned that hats and sunglasses are still necessary regardless of other sun protection choices, and said those wearing UPF-rated clothes should apply sunscreen starting about an inch under the ends of sleeves and pant legs, and onto the rest of the exposed skin.

He also said that a fabric dye called Sun Guard can be used to treat regular clothing to make it sun-protective, an effect that lasts for many washings.

"The styles have come a long way," Zeichner said. "It's an investment people make for a specific purpose. People spend hundreds of dollars on designer swimsuits . . . it just depends on how they want to spend their money."

Pass it on: Sun protective clothing protects better than sunscreen, but you still need sunscreen for exposed skin.

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