How to Pick Sun-Protective Clothing That Looks—and Keeps You—Cool

You don't have to sacrifice style for sun protection.

<p>Skodonnell/Getty Images</p>

Skodonnell/Getty Images

Sunscreen doesn't have to be the only tool you have to protect your skin from the sun's damaging rays. Sun-protective clothing can help keep your skin undercover and block out the harmful UV radiation that could lead to premature aging or skin cancer.

Related: How Long Does Sunscreen Last? And How to Know if It's Expired

Sun-protective clothing has come a long way since its early days, and you'll find more and more mainstream brands offering sun protection baked into everything from swimsuits and hats to everyday clothing.

So how do you choose the best sun protection clothing? We've got you totally covered.

Benefits of Sun-Protective Clothing

Obviously, skipping the sunburn on a day at the beach or the pool is a big win, but sun protection clothing offers other benefits, too.

It's more effective than sunscreen

Your days of patchy sunburned spots are over with a sun-protective clothing item, since it's applied evenly and consistently over your skin (so no more missing the spots along your bathing suit straps). "Clothing is the single most effective form of sun protection—it is a convenient and consistent shield," says Kim Nichols, MD, a dermatologist practicing in Greenwich, CT, and a spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation.

In fact, a study found that consistently UV-protection clothing provided better protection against UV radiation than any sunscreen.

Related: 7 Spots You’re Probably Forgetting When You Apply Sunscreen

Sun-protective clothing gives you all-day coverage

If you aren't a fan of reapplying sunscreen, sun protection clothing is your set-it-and-forget-it option. "The level of protection remains the same throughout the day, and there is no need to reapply every two hours like you would with sunscreen," Nichols says.

Related: The Best Face Sunscreens for Everyday Use

It can be a more cost-effective option

If you're slathering on the sunscreen as you should, you'll likely go through a bottle relatively quickly, while sun-protective clothing can last you for years, depending on the wear and tear it receives. So it may cost a little more for the sun shirt up front, but you'll achieve real savings down the line.

And if you're heading to coral reefs and other protected beach spaces, wearing a sun-protective suit, rather than using sunscreen, can be safer for the sea life you're checking out.

What Does UPF Mean?

UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) is the level of protection offered by a piece of sun-protective clothing, and it's a measure of the sun protection you get, similar to a sunscreen's SPF.

UPF for clothes is measured at four different levels: UPF 15, UPF 30, UPF 50, and UPF 50+. A piece of clothing with a UPF of 15 blocks 93.3 percent of the UV radiation. UPF 30 clothing blocks 96.7 percent of the UV radiation, and a UPF of 50 or above blocks 98 percent.

"The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends choosing clothing with a UPF of at least 30 to provide sufficient sun protection," Nichols says. "A UPF of 30 to 49 offers very good protection, while UPF 50+ is excellent."

If a piece of clothing has a UPF attached to it, the fabric has been tested in a laboratory to determine how effective it is as a layer of protection.

Things To Consider When Choosing Sun Protection Clothes

Sun-protective clothes are tested in a laboratory to determine the UPF—and most countries use the ASTM International criteria to determine the level of protection you'll get, Nichols says.

These are the factors that help determine your UPF clothing's rating.

Materials and construction

What it's made of—and how it's made—can be the biggest determiner of how effective a piece of clothing is as sun protection. Synthetic materials are better for UV protection than natural ones, Nichols says. For instance, nylon or polyester tend to be sun protective, while natural fibers like cotton, linen, or hemp generally need to be treated with chemicals to reach an effective level of sun protection.

How the fabric is woven and how thick it is also impacts its UPF rating. "A tightly-woven piece with smaller holes between the thread, like denim, will offer more protection than one with an open weave, like a crocheted shawl," Nichols says.


Even clothing that isn't labeled with a UPF may be sun protective. For instance, a pair of dark jeans may give you nearly complete sun protection, but may not have been tested and labeled in that way.


Thicker and darker fabrics are more protective than thin, light fabrics. "A bleached cotton offers little protection, whereas a black corduroy would block more UV radiation," Nichols says.


A stretchy fabric that's stretched too far could leave gaps in the weave to let the sunlight in. Opt for looser sun-protective clothes to ensure proper protection.


Check the tags for mentions of certifications. ASTM International has established criteria for assessing the UPF—so look for clothing that says it meets their standards.

In addition, the Skin Cancer Foundation has created a Seal of Recommendation, Nichols says. "Look for the seal to ensure a piece of clothing meets the stated level of UPF protection," Nichols says.

How Long Does the Sun Protection Last?

This all depends on how the sun protection was created. For instance, if a chemical or dye was added to the fabric to make it sun-protective, it can slowly wash out of the garment over time, while a super-tight weave used to provide sun protection will last longer—just keep an eye out for holes, tears, or other signs of wear that could expose your skin to the sun's rays.

Related: How Long Does Sunscreen Last? And How to Know if It's Expired

If the piece of clothing is relying on a chemical treatment to give you sun protection, it may state on the label how long the treatment will last. Generally, you can expect a chemical treatment to last between 30 and 40 washes before you should replace it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need to wear sunscreen with sun protective clothes?

If you have UPF 50+ clothing, you are blocking all but three percent of the UV radiation from hitting your skin. In that case, a layer of sunscreen beneath the clothing could provide that extra bit of protection to keep you fully covered, but may not be necessary.

And don't forget to slather sunscreen on the spots that aren't covered by your clothing, such as your hands, neck, face, and ears.

What brands offer sun protective clothing?

The Skin Cancer Foundation offers its own listing of products that meet its guidelines. You'll find both clothing companies that focus solely on sun-protective clothes (like Coolibar, Bloq UV, and Solbari), and general clothing manufacturers like The North Face, Lands' End, and Columbia.

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