Could Your Clothes Protect You from Skin Cancer?
It’s a trend that’s catching on—sun-protective clothing. Manufacturers claim their products protect the wearer from UV exposure (thereby reducing the risk of skin cancer), remain effective after several washings, and wear comfortably even for those with sensitive skin.
“Our goal is to provide the highest UV protection in a lightweight garment,” says Sun Protective Clothing’s web site, “while maintaining style, comfort, and durability.”
Can certain types of clothes really protect our skin better than others? According to skincancer.org, they can. “As a rule,” the organization says, “light-colored, lightweight and loosely-woven fabrics do not offer much protection from the sun. That white T-shirt you slip on at the beach when you feel your skin burning provides only moderate protection from sunburn, with an average ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 7.”
“UPF” is a measurement that indicates how much of the sun’s radiation is allowed to pass through a fabric. A rating of 50 means only 1/50th of the sun’s UV rays pass through. So a rating of 7 (like the white T-shirt) is not very protective—while a long-sleeved dark denim shirt offers an estimated UPF of 1,700, equal to complete sunblock. A quick and easy way to test your clothes? Hold them up to the light. If you can see through them, UV rays can penetrate the fabric, and affect your skin.
It’s not only the heaviness or lightness of the clothing. The type of fabric matters, too. Unbleached cotton has pigments that absorb UV rays, and some high-luster polyesters and satiny silk can be highly protective because they reflect radiation. Most fabrics, however, when they get wet, can lose much of their protective abilities, because the fabric becomes thinner and more transparent to light.
We’ve talked about the dangers in chemical sunscreens on this blog. Physical sunscreens like zinc oxide are currently considered the safest, but clothing—something many people may not consider—is an even safer option, if the fabric is suitably capable of blocking UV rays. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, “Wearing sun-protective clothing is one of the most effective ways to guard your skin from the sun’s harmful rays.” Of course, most people don’t want to wear long-sleeved denim shirts to the beach. That’s where new sun-protective clothing comes in.
Swimsuits, pants, hats, shirts—whatever types of clothes you like you can now find in sun-protective varieties. In addition to Sun Protective Clothing, Sun Precautions “Solumbra” line of protective clothing blocks more than 97% of UVA and UVB rays, and are purported to retain their protective properties through at least 100 washings. Other brands include SolarTex and Coolibar.
If you’re sun-sensitive (remember—chemotherapy increases your sensitivity to the sun), have had skin cancer, or just want better protection against UV rays, the Federal Trade Commission recommends you look for clothes with a high UPF value—you’ll find it on the label of sun-protective garments. If it’s 15 or below, pass it by—look for those in the 30-50 range.
If you’re budget is too tight to buy new clothes, you may want to try sun-protective laundry additives, like SunGuard, which contain sunscreens that increase the UPF of clothing. (The SunGuard web site claims that a washing with SunGuard raises the UPF of a white T-shirt from a UPF of 5 to one of 30.) Protection lasts through about 20 washings.
Have you tried sun-protective clothing? What do you think?
Photo courtesy radicool57 via Flickr.com.