Sun-Protective Clothing: More Than Just Swim Shirts

August 8, 2017

When skin cells are damaged at the DNA-level — most often by harmful UV rays — these abnormal cells mutate and rapidly multiply. This uncontrolled growth can then develop into malignant tumors, more commonly known as skin cancer.

The bad news is that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. Though it can develop anywhere, it’s most commonly found on the outer layer of the skin — the area most exposed to the sun. This includes the face, head, hands, arms, and legs.

The good news is that skin cancer is generally easy to detect and can be effectively treated when diagnosed early. The even better news is that, in most cases, skin cancer is preventable!

There are simple things you can do — such as wearing sunscreen and sun-protective clothing— to decrease your chances of developing skin cancer.

What Causes Skin Cancer?

Almost all (more than 90% of) non-melanoma skin cancer — and 86% of melanomas — is caused by long-term exposure to UV radiation.

We all have melanin in our skin that naturally blocks damaging UV radiation. The darker your skin, the more melanin you have and the better protected you are from UV radiation. But melanin alone can’t protect you from skin cancer.

Some people have other risk factors. Those who visit tanning beds have light-colored eyes, fair skin or multiple moles, or those with a history of skin cancer, pre-cancerous lesions or weakened immune systems are all at even greater risk.

Another big risk factor for skin cancer is sunburn. A history of sunburns — especially early in life — puts you at a greater risk of developing skin cancer, as does spending a lot of time outside in the sun.

Protect Your Skin with Sun-Protective Clothing

The best and easiest way to prevent skin cancer is to protect your skin from damaging UV radiation by practicing smart sun habits every day.

Sun-protective clothing is an excellent way to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. It’s easy, fashionable and, most importantly, serves as a consistent shield to protect your skin all day. (Unlike sunscreen, you don’t have to reapply!)

It’s important to remember that not all clothing offers the same level of sun protection. How well a fabric will protect your skin from UV rays depends on its weave, color, weight and fiber type.

Think about it like this: A long-sleeved flannel shirt offers a total sunblock, whereas a light cotton T-shirt offers much less protection, especially when wet. Shirts with high necklines or collars protect the back of your neck, and long pants offer more coverage than shorts.

Fabrics are made of tiny fibers that are woven or knitted together. UV rays can pass through these “holes” and directly reach your skin. The tighter the knit of the fabric, the less UV exposure there is for your skin.

Generally, polyester, nylon, wool, silk, and denim provide the most UV blockage, whereas light, loosely woven cotton provides the least.

In addition to the knit and weave of a fabric, color also determines how effectively a fabric protects from UV radiation. Darker-colored fabrics absorb more UV rays than lighter colors, and the more vivid the color, the greater the protection.

Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation

Today, there are all kinds of special UV-absorbing clothing available from a wide range of manufacturers, including swimsuits and rash guards to hats, long-sleeved shirts and pants. Many are labeled with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating similar to the SPF labeling for sunscreen. Like a sunscreen’s SPF, the UPF rating tells you how well a piece of clothing filters out UV radiation based on its weight, color and construction of the fabric.

Clothing with a UPF of 50, for example, allows just 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to reach your skin.

The Skin Cancer Foundation includes sun-protective fabrics with a UPF of 30 or higher in its Seal of Recommendation program. If you see their seal on a piece of clothing, you can be assured that it effectively protects from the sun’s UV rays.

Brands of UPF clothing and hats that currently meet the foundation’s criteria for safe and effective UV sun protection include:

  • ABG Accessories
  • Boy Scouts of America
  • Columbia Sportswear
  • Coolibar
  • Crew
  • Lands’ End
  • O’Neill Wetsuits
  • Specialized Bicycles
  • SUN & SKY
  • Under Armour
  • Vapor Apparel
  • Wallaroo Hat Company

Remember: Sun damage is cumulative over your lifetime. Every day, sun exposure adds to your risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging.

Limit the time you spend outside during peak sun hours (10:00 AM to 4:00 PM). Wear a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day or a water-resistant SPF of 30 or higher if you are in the water or outside for long periods of time.

In addition to sun-protective shirts, pants, and swimsuits, you should also wear UV-blocking sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat (with a brim at least three inches in diameter) to shade your face, neck, and ears.

When it comes to preventing sun damage and skin cancer, the more skin you can cover, the better!

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