Does Sun Protective Clothing Really Work? Dermatologists Weigh In

Updated: Jun. 18, 2021

All clothing that covers skin is somewhat preventative. Sun-protection clothing offers extra protection. But before you put away that sunscreen, read this.

You already know you should wear sunscreen, but it’s oh-so-easy to forget to apply it when you’re rushing to take advantage of the beautiful sunshine. (And if you do remember, chances are you’re making one of these 18 common sunscreen mistakes that up your risk for sunburn, sun damage, and even skin cancer.) Short of hiding indoors all summer, what’s an active nature lover to do?

What is sun protective clothing?

Sun protection clothing—specially treated garments designed to filter ultraviolet rays—may be the answer, says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, a dermatologist in Santa Monica, CA. While technically all clothing can provide some sun protection by covering up the skin, “sun protection clothing” carries a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating that indicates exactly how much UV can be blocked by the special fabric, she explains.

Just like SPF in sunscreen, the numbers for UPF clothing can be variable, usually from 15 to 50-plus. But the numbers don’t work in the same way as SPF, Dr. Shainhouse explains. For instance, a UPF of 50 will allow only 1/50 (2%) of the UV rays to get through, while a regular white t-shirt only gives a UPF of 5 to 8. Some of the UV-protective clothing has a rating based on such factors as fiber density and structure, like thread count per inch, while other items are pre-treated with a UV-inhibiting ingredient.

While sun protective clothing doesn’t mean you never have to wear sunscreen again, it does go a long way towards protecting your skin. “Protective clothing and broad-rimmed hats are one of the most important steps when it comes to safe sun practices in my opinion,” says Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, a dermatologist in New York, NY. “Heavy perspiration, water activities, and incomplete application of sunscreen causes sunscreen products rubbing off and losing their effectiveness, resulting in incomplete sun protection.”

Another factor to consider is what activities you’ll be doing. If you’re just hiking, a regular denim shirt can provide a lot of sun protection, but the protection provided by regular fabrics can be greatly reduced when they’re wet, says Brittany Buhalog, MD, a dermatologist in Madison, WI. So if you’re going to be in the water, you’ll want to invest in the UPF clothing, she says.

Where to buy sun protective clothing

This brings up another important factor in UPF clothing: The cost. These fabrics aren’t cheap and the expense can be a major reason for not wanting to buy the clothes. “You need to think of it as an investment in your health,” Dr. Buhalog says. “The cost of the clothes is guaranteed to be way cheaper than meeting your deductible for surgery if you get skin cancer.”

But aren’t UPF clothes, well, kinda ugly? Not anymore! There are lots of new brands that are both practical and stylish, Dr. Levin says. She  recommends Ultracor for its luxe UPF 50 activewear clothing that’s equal parts fashion forward and performance-ready, and Mott50 for its lightweight and cute clothing that offers UPF 50.

An affordable option are the Nike Dri-Fit UV solar sleeves. You can add these removable arm sleeves to up the UPF of any outfit. “This allows the arms to be protected from UV radiation but has the Dri-Fit technology so it dries quickly,” Dr. Levin says.

For those summer days when the water is calling your name, try a rashguard, the traditional garb of surfers, Dr. Buhalog. When you wear UPF clothing to the beach or pool, you don’t have to worry about reapplying sunscreen to your arms, chest, shoulders, or back. Plus if you’re active, playing volleyball, surfing, or splashing through the waves, you’ll appreciate the extra coverage. Cabana Life has a super cute limited edition rashguard that benefits Stand Up 2 Cancer.

Another must-have is a broad-rimmed hat, Dr. Shainhouse says. A good hat (you can also find these in UPF fabrics), sunglasses, and a neck scarf or collared shirt can protect your face, scalp, neck, shoulders, and ears. Baseball hats are popular outdoor apparel, but they don’t provide as much protection as a hat with a brim that goes all the way around, she cautions. One place to find tough and fashionable UPF hats is Wallaroo.