When it comes to shielding your skin from UV radiation, not all apparel is created equal. You need to know how to select a UV-safe wardrobe, whether it's from your closet or from specially made clothing.
Despite the overwhelming brightness of summer days, only about 48% of sunlight is visible to your eyes. An additional 46% is invisible infrared radiation. The remaining 6% consists of two types of invisible ultraviolet radiation—UVA and UVB.
UV radiation is the dangerous component of sunlight. UVB causes sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer. UVA is also involved in sunburn and skin cancer. Although you are more susceptible to damage from UV radiation if you are light-skinned or you live at higher altitudes or near the equator, no one is immune to harm from UV radiation. And for those who try and stay out of the sun completely, if you have less than fifteen minutes a day of sun exposure, you will need extra vitamin D, because sun exposure is the primary source of this vitamin.
There are three ways to protect yourself from UV radiation: block it, absorb it, or reflect it away. Sunscreens primarily block or absorb UV radiation, but clothing can protect you all three ways. The fabric blocks, the color absorbs or reflects, and special chemical treatments also absorb UV radiation; some even convert it into harmless visible light. Like sunscreen, there is a rating system for clothing called ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF. UPF indicates how much of the sun's UV radiation is absorbed. A fabric rating of 50 means that only 1/50th of the sun's UV rays will pass through. This means the fabric will reduce your skin's UV radiation exposure significantly since only two percent of the UV rays can pass.
Here are some general rules for selecting clothes to keep out UV radiation:
Obviously, dark, tightly woven polyester is not something you are likely to wear out in the hot sun. And if your clothing is so uncomfortable that you take it off, it doesn't matter how much protection it would have given you. There is clothing that may be more comfortable and that has been designed especially to protect you from the sun. Such clothing is made from fabrics that have been treated with chemical UV absorbers, known as colorless dyes, which prevent some penetration of both UVB and UVA rays. The clothes are also designed to cover as much of the skin as possible.
Clothing can be considered "sun-protective" if it falls within a specific UPF range. Only clothes with a UPF of 15-50+ may be labeled as sun-protective. Note that, like regular clothing, sun-protective clothing may lose its effectiveness. Some ways that the clothing could be less effective are if it is pulled too tight or stretched out; if it becomes damp or wet; or if it is washed and worn repeatedly.
The right clothing can help guard you, stylishly and comfortably, from the dangers of UV radiation. With carefully chosen clothing, you can reduce the chance of UV damage to your skin.
American Academy of Dermatology
American Cancer Society
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Skin cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/conditions/skin-cancer. Accessed June 5, 2012.
Bauer J, Buttner P, Wiecker TS, et al. Effect of sunscreen and clothing on the number of melanocytic nevi in 1,812 German children attending day care. Am J Epidemiol . 2005; 161:620.
Get in on the trend. Skin Cancer Foundation website. Available at: http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/sun-protection/clothing/get-in-on-the-trend. Accessed June 5, 2012.
Lamberg L. Dermatologists call for massive cover-up. JAMA. 1998 May 18;279(18):1426-7.
Clothing: our first line of defense. The Skin Cancer Foundation website. Available at: http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/sun-protection/clothing . Accessed June 5, 2012.
Last reviewed June 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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